This story first appeared in the zine, Closer than a Brother (1998). This zine and many other fine S&H zines can be obtained from Agent with Style at: www.agentwithstyle.com. Comments on this story can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org and will be forwarded to the author.
This story is a sequel to "Two Men & a Baby"
K Hanna Korossy
I'd been kinda hoping Starsky would call for some time. And when he did, it wasn't at all what I expected. But "Hutch, I could use your help here" was more than needed to get me to come, and so I was over there as fast as my sputtering car would allow. Nothing takes you fast enough when your partner calls you for back-up.
Looking like I'd been waiting by the phone would not be well-taken, I knew, so I eased up on the stairs even though my heart was two steps ahead of me. I was almost there, and then I'd know, and then I could help.
The door was ajar, prompting a sick sense of déja vu. Normal people had flashbacks of others they'd met or places they vacationed. Starsk and I, we had memories of poisonings and shootings and stabbings--tough line of work we're in. But there were also lots of memories of being there for each other, time after time, and that counted for a lot. . .
I rushed through the door.
Starsky was lying on the floor. Everything in me iced over for a moment, until I realized the reason for his being on the floor was the baby sitting next to him, playing with some blocks on the rug. Little Mark. I started breathing again.
Both of them looked up at my entrance, and I nearly laughed at the twin expressions, surprised and curious at once. One of the reasons Starsky was so good with babies is that, no matter who he's with, he can sympathize with 'em, get down on their level. Literally, sometimes. Makes him a darn good cop, and a pretty great babysitter. Which was apparently what he was doing today. I ignored the quick jab of disappointment that it wasn't going to be the talk I was hoping for, and instead smiled at them both.
Mark was up in a moment and heading for me as fast as those little legs allowed, and I crouched down to meet him. It's an incredible feeling, being met by someone who's that openly delighted to see you. Almost makes me wish I had. . .
Starsky looked at his watch, then at me. "What'd you do, fly over here? You got a new sports car I don't know about?" The lifted eyebrow said he knew the answer already, and the why. Darn it, when did I get so transparent?
I shrugged. If he was going to play dumb, so was I, and there was no way he could call me on it without getting himself in trouble. We both knew I was ready to talk about what was bothering him, and he wasn't. Instead, I scooped up Mark and stood. "It sounded important."
"It is." The knowing look faded, but only temporarily, I knew. "I've got a guest."
"So I see." Once in my arms, there wasn't anything really to do, so Mark started playing with my neck with one hand while he put his head down on my shoulder. The dark, curly-haired head resting against me was a whole other déja vu, and the feeling of warmth and protectiveness it inspired was just as familiar. I started stroking the baby hair while I watched my partner.
What the heck, I grinned back. It was good to see that silly, tilted grin that didn't look too silly at the moment. "What didya need my help for, though? Looks like everything's under control."
At the sound of my voice, Mark raised his head and began to wiggle to get down. I obliged him, watching him toddle off in search of something new to play with, just then realizing that Starsky had already baby-proofed his home, everything breakable and dangerous well off of ground level.
Starsky's shrug drew my attention again, and the realization that something was going on after all. He wasn't meeting my eyes.
"Well, Cee called right after I got home from work, said she and Rob had a last-minute chance to go away for the weekend and could we take Mark? I said sure."
So far, so good. Ever since we'd met Mark and his parents through Mickey a year before, we'd been occasional unofficial babysitters. I hadn't been keen on the idea originally--for the first few hours. Didn't take long for this brunet to have me wrapped around his finger, either. Must be something about those curls. Anyway, Starsky knew all about babies, and where would the kid be safer than with two cops? So we usually leapt at any opportunity to take the little guy, and then shared the duty. Nothing strange in Starsky calling me for that.
But that wasn't it. I waited for the rest, watching Starsky going through all kinds of interesting expressions. He finally found whatever excuse he'd been trying to make up, and went on. "But, uh, I got plans this weekend already. I was wondering if you could take Mark for the weekend. Maybe I'll drop by Sunday night."
Plans. Uh-huh, sure. Damned if I know how Starsky pulls off every undercover assignment he's on, because he's a rotten liar. Besides, there were other reasons for me not to bite. "Starsky, you know that won't work. What am I going to do with a 14-month-old for two days? What if I have to change a diaper?" From what I knew about babies, that seemed a pretty likely possibility.
Starsky almost grinned at that. "Aw, c'mon, Hutch, the kid's crazy about you. You two'll have fun together. Besides, you've changed a coupla diapers already."
"Yeah, with you there telling me how to do it. And none of them. . . smelled." The shudder was only half-show. Everything I knew about babies I'd learned from my partner, and though Starsky was a good teacher, I still wasn't ready to solo.
The grin was gone. "Hutch, it's just a few days--"
"I could say the same thing," I interrupted. "You're the one who said yes, remember? I'll help. I'll even spend the weekend if you want, but I'm not gonna do it by myself, uh-uh."
Starsky gave up. He wasn't happy, but he wasn't upset with me, I could tell. More like. . . resigned. We'd have to work on that, too, and thanks to Mark, I had all weekend to do it now.
Speaking of the little guy, he was just beginning to climb up onto Starsky's fanback chair, and Starsk jumped up to go help him. With that distraction, I finally took the chance to close the door and take my jacket and gun off, the latter going up high on a top shelf, of course, and then settle on the couch to watch them.
Starsky procured some trucks from somewhere--could have just as easily been his as Mark's--and the two of them started driving around and under pillows, making truck noises and working on imaginary construction sites. It's still hard for me to reconcile the competent cop I know with the kid Starsky becomes sometimes. Makes me feel like a parent or something, watching over him. But then, that dichotomy is one of the things that makes Starsky so unique. I just never make the mistake of forgetting that he's watching over me, too, just not so obviously. Even if I didn't trust him with my life, even if I didn't know he loved me more than anyone deserved to be loved, even if he weren't by best friend, he'd still be one of the most incredible people I'd ever met. He's just. . . Starsky. That I ended up with him is just more than I can thank God for sometimes.
Of course, if I said any of that out loud, he'd never let me live it down. Besides, he knows.
The two kids kept playing with the trucks for longer than I would've thought possible. In fact, I must've dozed off watching 'em, because the next thing I knew, there were baby noises and a good smell coming from the kitchen, and Starsky, wearing an apron, was hanging over me, shaking me awake. Other times, it might've been a glass of water in the face or loud music blasted in my ear, but I was still being a little spoiled for having wrenched my shoulder earlier that week, the same shoulder Diana got me in. . . man, was it only a month ago? I was okay already, just a little worn, but Starsky always took longer than I did to get over me being hurt. He was watching me with that expression of being worried but trying not to look it because he doesn't want to exasperate me. To be honest, sometimes he does, but not really. How can you be mad at someone who worries about you like that?
I gave him a look--that was enough to settle the issue--and then stretched. The muscle still twinged a little, but I felt pretty good for someone who'd been stabbed only a few weeks before. Not that I'd ever tell Starsky that. He doesn't take those kind of jokes well.
"What's for dinner?" I yawned.
"Fettucini, if you're up for it. Recipe straight from the old country."
I frowned at him. "Italy? That must be the fourth or fifth 'old country' you come from, Starsk."
He stuck out his tongue and I couldn't help it, I grinned. Mark was helping already. Although how I'd get Starsky to go back to acting his age after the kid left, I wasn't sure. It was a problem I was happy to be saddled with.
Mark was sitting at the table, on top of two phone books, when I got to the dining nook. I was about to ask Starsky if it wasn't risky leaving him like that, when I realized that there was something around him. Closer inspection revealed that it was a tablecloth, rolled up and fastened around him and the chair.
"You tied him up?!" I asked incredulously, staring up at my partner.
Starsky shrugged. "He could fall off if I didn't and you weren't here to help. I needed to do something so he could eat. Unless you have a high chair in your trunk?"
"He's okay. Shut up and siddown."
This was one area I figured Starsky knew best and so I shut up and sat. Actually, I almost always listen to him, it just isn't good for his ego to know it. Or mine.
Starsky sprinkled a few peas and tiny pieces of apple on the placemat in front of the kid, and I watched with quiet fascination as the uncoordinated little hands tried to grab hold of the food and get it to his mouth. Most of the time, he didn't make it, but it didn't seem to stop him from trying.
"Hey, Starsk, he makes even more of a mess than you do."
"Ha, ha," was the dry response from the stove behind me.
Most of the food was ending up unreachable in Mark's lap, and I finally reached forward to help, picking up one of the pieces of apple and putting it to his mouth.
That was not well received. Mark bounced in his seat in agitation and gave a wail of protest. Starsky turned at the commotion, and I found myself absurdly defensive as he glared at me.
"I was just trying to help," I protested weakly.
"I don't think he wants it. If you leave him alone, he'll let you help when he gives up."
There was a look in his eye that suddenly made me think we were talking about more than Mark here, but I left it. "Fine, go hungry," I whispered defiantly to the kid once Starsky's back was turned. Mark just giggled.
Dinner was an indulgence. I don't think I'd have found the energy to cook if I'd been home, and Starsky, despite his atrocious taste, always seemed to come up with amazing things in the kitchen. It was a little richer and less healthy than my tastes, but as he'd been so fond--and concerned--about telling me the last few weeks, I'd lost weight while recovering and could use a little fattening up.
After dinner, Starsky cleared the dishes and then came back with a chunk of chocolate cake. For him. I hate when he takes my healthful eating protests literally.
"You know, that stuff's bad for you."
Didn't faze him a bit. Never does. "Uh-huh. Want some?"
He didn't even look at me, just went and got me some, and put a little piece of it on Mark's mat, too. Five minutes later, there was chocolate cake in the baby's hair, on his clothes, and liberally coating his face and hands. Amazing; I didn't know so little cake could go so far.
I didn't stick around for the bath. Starsky seemed to have that well in hand, and I was tired. I ended up on the couch, watching a football game that didn't interest me while I listened to Mark and Starsk talking in the background.
"All right, Mark, turn around and spread 'em." I almost laughed.
Daa. That seemed to be Mark's all-purpose word. It could mean everything, depending on what he was pointing to or what inflection he gave it. The scary thing was, I usually understood.
"Okay. As soon as we're done with this, we'll get you dried off and into your jammies. And then maybe Uncle Ken'll read you a story." Well, that was only fair after skipping out on the bath.
Mark answered him, and I could almost see Starsky listening. He can do that in a way that makes you feel like you're the smartest, most valuable person in the world, even with a 1 1/2 year-old with a one-word vocabulary. I can do that, too--always succeeded in getting female companionship that way--but the amazing thing about Starsky is that he really means it.
"Yeah, maybe Go, Dogs, Go. That's one of his favorites, y'know." I just shook my head, tolerantly resigned. "Only, we're gonna keep it to one book tonight, okay, Shorty? Uncle Ken's kinda tired. He got hurt not long ago." His voice trailed off at that, and I knew he was remembering. I was, too.
The next thing I knew, Starsky was standing next to me, holding out a scrubbed-clean and pajamaed kid, and it was my turn.
Since Cee and Rob had started bringing Mark over, Starsky's been collecting baby stuff. Toys, books, you name it. Well, okay, maybe I bought something now and then too, but that's different, my choices were educational and good for the kid. Starsky just bought stuff because he enjoyed it. He had made some surprisingly good selections, though, including a set of first reader books, everything from Dr. Seuss to Are You My Mother? to Go, Dogs, Go. I figured from the latter that Starsky was trying to start the kid early on cars.
Most 14-month-olds wouldn't sit still long, even for a book, Starsky assured me, but Mark was different. He settled right into my lap, snug in the crook of my arm as if he was meant to be there, and looked at the pictures while I read, pointing out things that caught his interest with that helpful Daa. After a moment, he also absently reached up with one hand for my neck; some kids like hair or hands or a blankie. Mark likes necks. I don't mind it since we weaned him off of pinching.
Starsky sat down in his fanback chair across from the coffee table, ostensibly to read a book, except he looked like he was listening to Go, Dogs, Go, too. I caught him grinning when the dogs took their party to the top of the tree. Figured. And I refused to give him the pleasure of a reaction when I turned the page and one of the dogs' red cars had a white stripe painted on with what looked suspiciously like white-out.
The two dogs finally rode off into the sunset together, and storytime was over. I looked up to see Starsky unconvincingly reburied in his book.
"Done. You want to put him to b-e-d?" I don't know when Mark got smart enough to understand what we were saying, but he hadn't caught on to spellings yet. I figured although it would be years until he understood what they meant, it probably wouldn't take him long to put together that whatever we were spelling, he didn't like.
Starsky shrugged an okay with an effort at nonchalance that I found interesting. I didn't call him on it, instead handing over Mark, who went willingly, and watching the two of them retreat to Starsky's bedroom. Very interesting. Neither of us had ever made any secret of the fact that bedtime duty is definitely a pleasure. Now that we were past the crying-to-sleep stage, lying down with a baby drowsily hanging on to your neck until he falls asleep was actually kinda nice. Made you remember that there were a lot of good things left in the world, not just the garbage we see on the street each day.
So why was Starsky acting like he couldn't care less when he obviously did?
I sat half-reading, half-thinking about that as I waited for Starsky to finish and put Mark into the foldaway crib playpen Cee had also brought over. The quiet talking and stirring noises faded away, and ten minutes passed, then fifteen. Not a sound. Curious, I finally got up and went to the bedroom door to look in.
Mark and Starsky lay on the bed, both curled up facing each other, foreheads nearly touching as Mark still had an arm wound around my partner's neck. And both were fast asleep.
I shook my head with fondness. For Mark, it was simply another sign of security and being loved. For Starsky, I think it was something he'd really been needing. It'd been some time since I'd seen him look that at peace, awake or asleep.
I fetched a blanket from the closet and crept in to cover both of them. October nights could be chilly. Neither stirred. The sleep of the innocent, I thought.
Then I made my own bed on Starsky's couch and turned in for the night.
A very small hand patting my cheek woke me from sleep, and I frowned, trying to make sense of the feeling as the little fingers moved upward and pulled up on my eyelid way too hard. With a surprised gasp, I sat up, awake all at once.
Four eyes alight with mischief watched
me, two blue, two hazel, just above the level of the couch. I blew out a breath
with some combination of amusement and exasperation. "Starsky--"
"He did it," Starsky innocently pointed to his co-conspirator. How could a thirty-four-year-old vet and street cop look so utterly guileless?
It didn't take long for me to see the humor of it, and I swooped at once down on Mark, grabbing him up and holding him above my head while he giggled. Except my shoulder had stiffened up in the night and as it spasmed in protest, I nearly dropped the kid. I quickly put him on my stomach and hoped Starsky hadn't noticed. With mock sternness, I addressed Mark. "A-ha! You're the one who's doing wake-up calls at--" I looked over at Starsky, an eyebrow raised.
"--5:45 AM," he provided. I
cringed, and he gave me a rueful shrug. "Who d'ya think he woke
I shook my head resignedly, then turned back to Mark. "So much for catching up on sleep over the weekends. Haven't you heard of Saturdays, kid?" Mark smiled, highly amused. Funny, I often got that same response from Starsky when I was trying to chew him out. I'd have to work on my technique.
Starsky disappeared into the bathroom before I could make it, and I grudgingly resigned myself to being on baby duty before a shower. To my surprise, clothes were already neatly laid out on Starsky's bed--that partner of mine would make a good mom one day--and next to it, I grimaced, was a diaper.
Restraining a wired street addict is nothing compared to a baby. Starsky usually did all the dressing and management kind of stuff; I know how to, but Starsky didn't seem to mind nearly so much as I do. But I swear, Mark gets more slippery and wiggly every month. Getting the diaper changed was a major endeavor, even without the hazardous waste component, and dressing him in his clothes afterwards was a whole other battle. Who made this stuff, anyway? Pants that snap all along the inseam, and tiny shirts that you have to pretzel the kid's arms into to get them on. Mark didn't seem to mind as long as I didn't keep him still for too long, though I don't know which of us panicked more when his shirt got stuck over his head and he couldn't see. I was ready to wail.
Impeccable timing. I had just finished, ready to go back to bed after that ordeal, when my partner walked out of the shower looking more awake and chipper than I've seen him all week.
"You got baby powder on your nose," he said pleasantly as he passed us on the way to the bedroom.
I threw the plastic bottle at the closing door.
My turn. The warm water did wonders for my sore shoulder and knotted back, if not taking care of the twinges altogether. It didn't occur to me until after I was toweling myself off that it was the first time I'd been comfortable in a shower since the attack. Maybe because it was the first time Starsky had been right outside the door. I looked in the mirror as I took a deep breath. A little careworn around the edges, a few circles under the eyes, but I was doing okay. It helped that I had one heck of a full-time counselor on my side.
He was waiting for me when I got out of the bathroom, and silently shoved a bottle into my hand. Liniment. All I got was a single knowing raised eyebrow, then he went back out into the living room while I stood there and stared after him. Guess I didn't fool him after all. With a hidden smile and bottle in hand, I headed for the bedroom in search of clothes.
The Ride of the Valkyries struck my ears as I stepped out of the bedroom, and I stopped for a minute in surprise. That wasn't Starsky's usual taste. But the sight that greeted me in the living room explained it all. Starsky and Mark were both stretched out on the couch, watching Bugs Bunny traipse around on TV in a Viking helmet and wig, while the music thundered on in the background.
"Starsk, what are you puttin' into the kid's head? Cartoons aren't good for you."
He craned his head back to look at me incredulously. "You kiddin'? This one's a classic. Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, Hutch. Didn't you watch Saturday mornin' cartoons as a kid?"
Starsky's eyes suddenly softened. Despite his own aborted childhood, sometimes I think he feels more sorry for my straitlaced one. "C'mon, Hutch, it's fun. Siddown and watch with us. It's just gettin' to the good part." It was an open request, made for my sake more than his own. People often don't realize that that's the case most of the time Starsky gets all puppy-dog-appeal on me. 'Course, I don't let on that I know it, either. That's all part of the game. With a roll of the eyes and a martyred sigh, I sat down on the floor in front of the couch, and after a while, Mark slid into my lap to join me.
Which is how at the age of thirty-four, for the first time in my life, I spent the morning eating cereal in front of the TV while watching Saturday morning cartoons. And, you know, they weren't all that bad.
After I finally managed to pull the kids away from the TV, grocery shopping was next on the agenda. We had a real carseat, a big metal and leather contraption that went into the back seat, and we set out in the tomato to do the shopping for both of us for the week. Somehow, I doubted either of us would find much free time otherwise this weekend. The thought didn't bother me at all.
It's amazing, I thought Mark was a girl magnet when he was a baby, but it seemed the older he got, the better he got at it. The kid knew his charms, and flirted with every woman he saw, pretty or not, and every single one of 'em fell for it. And for his limited vocabulary, he was very talkative, chattering on to everyone. I played translator and loved every minute of it until Starsky gave me an acid look, and I knew it was time to make myself useful. After that, he got Mark for the rest of the trip. Seeing the delight in his eyes as we packed up the groceries to go home, I had no regrets.
Besides, it was easier on us both if one of us was holding the baby. Left to walk on his own, Mark had been amazingly fast at filling the cart with cans of dogfood, the smallest stuff on the lowest shelf he could reach, before either of us caught him. No willpower, that one. Reminds me of someone else I know.
At home, we kindly let Starsky take the groceries in while Mark and I took the stairs one at a time. Despite his independence and his real talent for walking, one small hand was still wrapped around two of my fingers as we tackled the steep steps. So much trust in one little guy; I nearly shook my head. Kids never pretended they were self-sufficient when they really wanted help. Watching Starsky balance four bags, I swallowed a sigh. There was a lesson to be learned in there, somewhere.
"How about hotdogs for lunch?" the disembodied voice called from the kitchen as Mark and I made ourselves at home in the living room. Leaving the kid driving trucks up the side of Starsk's coffee table, I headed into the kitchen for a moment.
"Sure. And how about some--"
"Okay. In there. You want any--"
"Uh-uh. Maybe later."
I set the table quickly, then both of us turned at the laugh that came from floor-level in the doorway. Mark stood there, grinning widely as he clutched a piece of toilet paper. Except, the piece he was holding was only the end of a strip that stretched off out of sight behind him, heading toward the bathroom.
"Mark!" Starsky hollered, and I quickly headed off to inspect the damage, Mark gleefully running ahead of me at the impromptu game of chase. I caught him midway to the scene of the crime, then followed the trail of paper back to the bathroom and the pile at the base of the now-empty roll set in the wall. I groaned, then quickly drew the evidence into the bathroom and shut the door after it, giving Mark a disapproving look. It was hard to keep up; clearly, the sight was the funniest thing the kid had ever seen. A quick tickle seemed punishment enough. Then, steeling myself, I picked up the little felon and headed back to the kitchen and the sink to wash Mark's hands.
Starsky looked at me warily. "Don't tell me he pulled the whole roll off."
"He pulled the whole roll off."
Starsky sighed. "I asked ya not to tell me that."
"Sorry. At least it's mostly in one pile." Mark wiggled antsily in my arms, and I put him down on his stack of phone books, searching for the two ends of the tablecloth.
Starsky served lunch, piling up chopped hotdog in front of Mark, who attacked the food with glee, pausing only to drink--with help--from the cup of juice that already had a half-inch of food sediment at the bottom. A few pieces of hotdog soon joined it. Suddenly, I wasn't so hungry.
I fetched a banana instead, one of the few things in Starsky's kitchen that I was willing to touch, let alone eat. As soon as Mark saw it, he reached for it with a very insistent Daa.
"Say 'please'," Starsky said mildly.
Dee was about as close as Mark could get, but at least he tried. I broke off part of the banana, watching in ill-disguised fascination at how expediently it ended up spread on his stomach and an ear. It was a wonder the kid didn't starve to death, seeing how little made it inside. Maybe that's why he snacked all day on the Cheerios Starsky seemed to always have handy.
By the end of the meal, Mark was getting fussy, and I knew from experience what that meant. When Starsky gets like that, it's either time to gag him, calm him down, or put him to bed, and I was pretty good at knowing which to do. I'm no expert with babies like I am with Starsky, but I figured it was time for a nap. Mark wasn't often cranky except when he was hungry, tired, or needed to be changed. Not a bad philosophy in life, if you ask me.
Through some unwritten law, it was my turn for bed duty, and I took the drooping baby into Starsky's bedroom. It was almost hard to put him down; both of us were pretty comfortable with his head on my shoulder, completely relaxed against me. I never thought of it before as a matter of trust, but really, to whom do you surrender yourself like that but to someone you trust not to let go? It reminded me of other times, other places, but always the same person.
Warmed through by more than the physical warmth of the little body in my arms, I crawled with him into bed, and when he roused at the movement, I automatically began to sing. The lullaby was my mother's, sung to me when I was little, and I had to scramble to remember some of the words, but Mark didn't seem to mind. Five minutes later he was asleep, a small damp hand still resting on my neck. I stayed there for a long time past that, thinking.
It did my soul good, the purity in the face I studied, still unspoiled by the bad in life. It was a part of our job both as cops and as Mark's babysitters to make sure that that innocence was preserved as long as possible. My partner had that same optimism and limitless enthusiasm that had both fascinated and put me off at the very beginning. But I protected it now just as fiercely as I would this child's. How Starsky had kept it throughout grief and street life and war and policework, I had no clue, but whenever I saw it all getting to him, I did something about it. Childlike innocence was a precious gift. And maybe, I thought, with a look at the sleeping baby, a good dose of Mark's would restore my partner's.
Starsky was stretched out on the couch when I finally came out of the room, nearly asleep himself after the big meal and the morning of running around. I can tell when he's really asleep, though--don't ask me how. The breathing, I think. If you listen to someone enough in the hospital, in the middle of a nightmare, in utter fatigue after a long case, you learn.
"He asleep?" The drowsy words confirmed it.
"Out like a light."
"You didn't clean up the bathroom," he said just as mildly. "You think I wouldn't notice?"
"Well. . ."
An indulgent shake of the head. "How's your shoulder?"
He still hadn't opened his eyes, and I smiled unseen. "Okay. Hardly feel it now."
A beat. Now or never, I supposed. "How 'bout you? How're you doing?"
That prompted one half-opened eye and a long look. "I'm okay."
Both eyes were open now, but they were gazing up at the ceiling, not at me. I saw him swallow hard. "I look at Mark now, though, and I think, in a coupla years, he'll be Guy's age. And if anyone did t'him. . ." He turned to me. "I'd kill 'im, Hutch. I swear, I'd kill 'im."
That's what I thought. Finding Guy Mayer in his mother's trashcan was one of the most sickening things I'd ever seen, but I don't think it'd gotten to me near as much as to Starsky for some reason. "I know," I said quietly.
He shook his head. "I don't get it, how somebody can do something like that to a little kid?"
"I don't know, Starsk. She was sick. Like Diana."
Another measuring glance. "An' like the bunch at Cabrillo?"
I winced at the reminder, earning an immediate apologetic glance. He wasn't trying to hurt me, of course, there was just more mixed into this than I'd thought. Starsky was pretty good at working things out for himself, but Diana's attack had really shaken him, enough that when Rosey left him a short time later, he'd nearly crawled into a bottle. And when he'd tried to bounce back from that, Dobey had bounced him right into Cabrillo State. Great place to get your head back on straight. Then John Blaine died, like the loss of another dad for Starsky, and the pain was still fresh ten days later when we got involved with little Guy. . . How could you bounce back if every time you started to, something knocked you down again?
I sighed. "Cabrillo was different, Starsk, you know that. Most of those guys weren't dangerous, just a little confused." Actually, the staff had ended up being the ones to look out for. I still had hazy memories of the end of that case, drugged nearly out of my mind, remembering only Starsky's frantic soothing, and waking in the hospital to the discovery of my partner curled protectively next to me. Only an irate resident's complaints later revealed how Starsky had made the staff back off and how he'd stayed with me all night to make sure I was calm and safe until the junk was out of my system.
"Hey," I said suddenly,
"did I ever thank you for that?"
He frowned, confused. "What?"
"For coming to the rescue like that. With Deek chasing me with the knife, then at the hospital. Probably saved my life both times."
He shrugged dismissively. "You were lookin' out for me, too."
"Yeah." I always do. "But I still appreciate it." More gently. "Thanks, partner." It held every bit of sincerity I felt.
Starsky met my gaze at that, and he was still fighting to sort it all out, I could see, but I think I just gave him a little bit of help. Something seemed lightened in him. "You're welcome," he said softly.
Things like that needed to be said sometimes, especially when they helped with healing. But only in small doses. I suddenly grinned. "Actually, you were pretty good in Cabrillo. Fit right in with all those crazy people."
"Hutch. . ." His tone was warning.
"In fact, if I didn't know better--"
"You're just jealous 'cause I'm a good actor," Starsky smirked. "I'm a man of hidden talent, y'know."
"Practically buried," I nodded sagely.
He looked pained. "Well, if that's how you're gonna be. . ."
"Fine. Next time we go undercover, you can be the straightman and I get to have some fun."
"Fun?!" he sat up in complete outrage. "You weren't the one goin' in naked and gettin' shots every hour from that gorilla or bein' tied up in a straightjacket, not to mention havin' to go rescue his partner. I did a pretty darn good job, if you ask me."
I smiled. "I know, I just wanted you to say it."
Then I made good my escape while his mouth was still hanging open and he was trying to decide whether he was mad or embarrassed.
A little over an hour later, Mark showed up again, toddling sleepily out of the bedroom. Kids are a little clingy when they've just gotten up and they're still dopey, and I hung back and let Starsky take that one. I returned to the kitchen to work on the dinner preparations I'd started before.
I was just putting everything away when I heard the slap of small bare feet on the kitchen tile, and a moment later, someone tugging on my jeans at the knee. I turned and crouched down to eye-level. "Yes?"
Paa, was what the answer sounded like as Mark pointed back into the living room. But it was said solemnly, and I nodded back just as seriously before raising a questioning eyebrow at my partner in the doorway.
" 'Park,' he means. Hey, aren't you supposed to be the bilingual one?" Starsky grinned.
"Spanish, yes. Baby, no," I stood, Mark in my arms. "What about the park?" I asked him.
I got the same answer, a more insistent Paa.
"Uuuh-huh," I nodded slowly.
Starsky made a face. "He's sayin' we're goin' to the park. You comin'?"
That actually sounded good. "Sure."
Coats and diaper bags were even more complicated than morning preparations, but I watched with new respect as Starsky handled them all smoothly. Nothing really surprises me about him anymore, but only because I know he'll always do or know something I wouldn't have expected.
"I think," I speculated, "there's a frustrated mother buried somewhere in you."
He looked up at me. "Who's frustrated?" A little too knowingly.
I felt my cheeks color at that, but I was delighted at the glint in his eye. Now that was my Starsky.
Back to the tomato and the car-seat contraptions. I swear, we don't even lock felons up that tight, but soon he was in, and after a quick side-trip to my house for supplies, we went back to Westchester to Starsky's local playground.
It was a clear October Saturday and there were at least a dozen kids already there, but Mark's green jacket was the only one of that color, so I was able to keep him in sight from the bench while Starsky crawled around on the jungle gyms with him. I was called, as usual, to be designated catcher when the little guy slid down the slide solo, but it was already a given that Starsky be his shadow. I wasn't as agile as my partner, and with my shoulder still not one hundred percent, I enjoyed the watching more than the doing. Besides, I'm, uh, a little clumsy on these climbing things.
As Mark stopped at the sand pile and grew engrossed in building with two of the kids there, though, I rose and went over to join Starsky as he stood and watched. We watched with interest as the kid upended a bucketful of sand and smoothed its sides with baby precision, leaving it rougher than it'd started.
"Maybe he's gonna be an architect," Starsky ventured.
I grinned to myself as I watched the tower grow more ragged. Well, maybe with a little work. Then, growing tired of the game, Mark smashed his construction and happily drove a toy truck through the debris.
"Or a demolitions expert," I added helpfully. Starsky cast a scowl my way.
A moment later he spoke up again. "Didja see that girl?"
I looked around. Nobody but mothers that I could see. "Where?"
"Not there," Starsky tugged impatiently on my coat and pointed. "There."
She was cute and blonde and couldn't be all of two years old, playing just as joyfully with the trucks as Mark was. "I think she's a little young for you, Starsk."
Another withering glance. "Not me, dummy. Mark. I think he's kinda sweet on her."
"Isn't he a little young for that?" I asked.
That was ignored as Starsky continued to study her. "I don't think she'd be good for him, though. She's kinda pushy."
I had to swallow the sigh. Why I even listened after all these years, I don't know.
One of the mothers had drifted nearer to Starsky, and now she leaned closer to him. "Is he yours?" she asked pleasantly, indicating Mark.
Before I could say anything, Starsky was grinning with pride. "Sure is. His name's Mark." He didn't even flinch when I dug an elbow into his back.
"He's adorable," the woman beamed. "I could just tell he's yours; he looks an awful lot like you."
I was almost sick at that, and when Starsky turned back to me with that particular gloating expression, I nearly throttled him. "Woman's blind," I muttered.
That didn't seem to faze Starsky a bit, but I was surprised at how much the woman's words pricked me. The assumption wasn't without reason; the brunet curls were a good start, and while Mark's eyes were hazel, they shone with an enthusiasm that always reminded me of Starsky. Not like that even mattered; Chris' kids got the hardy blond, blue-eyed Scandinavian genes that run in our family, and my niece and nephews could've been my own children. But they weren't. Not any more than Mark was mine, or Starsky's.
A loud wail broke into my thoughts, and the next thing I knew, Mark was tottering toward me, complaining in his own way as he held his hand and tears rolled down his cheeks. That was abruptly all that mattered. I gathered him up and we both looked at his hand and discovered nothing more than an already fading red mark from some minor collision. Starsky fussed over the "booboo" with appropriate sympathy and reassurance, while one little hand wrapped itself around my neck and the small, curly head nestled itself into the hollow of my neck.
Starsky's gaze met mine for confirmation that the crisis had passed, and something more, a moment of understanding. He knew what I'd been thinking, and he felt the same way. And it struck me abruptly, how many people could ever say they had that kind of understanding with another person, let alone on a regular basis? Perhaps neither of us had been fortunate to start a family yet, and there was a chance that one or both of us never would be. But there were different ways of being blessed, and we'd both already been granted several. The baby clinging to me and my best friend were two of mine.
All of us were ready to leave and we three men silently made the trek back to the car, the warmth of the moment lingering as we went. And if someone would've asked me that minute, I couldn't have thought of a single thing more to wish for.
The rest of the afternoon went pretty quickly, as it always does when you're having fun. I can't remember the last time I had fun in the form of tossing a ball back and forth--or, in Mark's case, carrying it up to the person you wanted to give it to--or playing tag or riding a tricycle. Maybe I never did. My parents loved me something fierce and I was happy, but in kind of a serious way. Anyway, I had a great time, was even more of a kid than Starsky was. And that's saying something.
When we finally came inside, I don't know who was more tired, the drooping kid or the two bachelors who'd spent the day acting like kids. Mark has more energy than my partner on a good day, but when he runs out, he seems to do it from one minute to the next. Starsky went to stick the casserole I'd fixed into the oven and get ready for dinner, while Mark and I crawled onto the sofa to read.
This time, I had a book of my own to share, Miguel Va De Viaje, retrieved from my house earlier that day. Mark could understand English without much problem so I felt a little guilty springing Spanish on him, but they say the earlier you start them, the easier kids pick it up. Besides, with all the pictures to look at, Mark didn't seem to care at all what I was saying.
By the time we finished the book, both of us were half-asleep, but dinner was ready and so we went to eat. Casserole for us, cut-up peanut butter and jelly sandwich pieces for Mark. He loved it; for a meal, it made nice eveningwear. Amazing how much the food revitalized the little guy. Starsky seemed to get a big kick out of it, though, and that made the huge mess negligible.
I had clean-up dinner duty, vastly preferred over Starsky's clean-up Mark duty, but I was still washing dishes when I heard the TV go on in the living room. I finished drying the last dish, then went out to join them.
Starsky was sprawled on the sofa, Mark comfortably sitting next to him and leaning back against his stomach, the both of them engrossed in television. I groaned.
"Cee and Rob are gonna kill us when they find out we've turned their kid into a TV addict."
Starsky looked up at me languidly. "What's wrong with bein' a TV addict?"
"Rots the brain, Starsk."
"Hey, I watch TV all the time." He flinched even as he said it, realizing what he'd just walked into.
I wasn't about to disappoint. "I rest my case," I said sweetly.
"Dummy," he muttered without an ounce of condemnation.
"What's on, anyway?" I asked, rounding the sofa. Mark climbed off to offer a hug, which I willingly accepted, then he climbed back onto the couch. That's one of the great things about kids, they're never shy about showing they love you.
"Wrestling. Hammerlock Grange against somebody-or-other."
I cringed. "Wrestling? You're letting Mark watch that? Starsky--"
"Calm down," Starsky said mildly, "We're not gonna watch it, I was just looking for something good. Can't corrupt the kid."
A little abashed, I sat down, and Mark grinned at me. I grinned back. With that encouragement, he crawled over Starsky and holding by one foot the teddy bear Starsky had procured for him from somewhere, used it as a gun and "shot" me twice. My smile froze.
Starsky was up in a second, yanking down Mark's hand. "No, Mark. No. We don't shoot people. That's bad," he said sharply.
A little too sharply, perhaps. Mark's lower lip curled and he began to cry, pulling away from Starsky to crawl back into my lap for comfort. Still at a loss, I gave it to him, wrapping him in my arms as if that could hold all the ugliness and hardship of the world at bay. How did a 14-month-old know about guns? It was a spoiling of innocence that neither of us was ready for. As if I could protect him forever. . . I had already learned the futility of that in the back room of an Italian restaurant.
Silently, I looked over the curly head at Starsky, who stared at us both with stricken eyes. I immediately disengaged Mark gently from my neck and turned him back to Starsk. "Mark, it's okay," I said softly. "Uncle Dave's not mad. Just no shooting, okay? That's bad. It hurts people."
Starsky glanced up at me, then proffered the teddy hopefully, and Mark unthawed enough to reach out for it. Before I knew it, Starsky pulled him right out my lap and the two of them were rolling around on the floor, wrestling in a fit of giggles. All the strain of a moment before disappeared just as suddenly. Amusement replaced my surprise after a moment, and I sat back to watch them play, contentment seeping back into my heart at the sound of all the laughter.
Maybe innocence wasn't as fragile a thing as I thought, after all.
Starsky's clock chiming 8:30 finally pulled me back to the present, and now that Mark was fully wound up, I reluctantly separated the two combatants and declared bedtime. Two groans of complaint echoed my announcement, but I didn't bend. Starsky reaped what he sowed as he chased the kid around to get him ready for bed, while I refused to help, and then I said goodnight and Starsky took the baby off to bed. I settled onto the sofa with one of Starsky's books.
A few minutes later, he returned, looking a little rumpled, and sat down on the coffee table beside me.
"He's already asleep?" I asked in surprise. "What'd you do, drug him?"
"Guess I just have the touch," Starsky answered automatically, his mind clearly elsewhere.
"Uh-huh," I said disbelievingly. "More likely he was beat after the workout we gave him today."
I could tell Starsky hadn't even heard me. "Hutch?" he asked absently.
I prepared myself. That usually meant trouble. "Yeah?"
"I didn't mean t'scare him like that."
"No harm done, partner. You just startled him a little." My voice was as warm as I could make it.
He looked straight at me, as serious as I've ever seen him. "I love that kid, Hutch."
"I know that," I said at once. "He knows, too; kids can tell." If anyone knew how much love Starsky was capable of, it was me.
"Guy's mom loved him, too, I think. That's probably why he protected her."
"Well, yeah, in her own way, I think she did," I said slowly. I still wasn't sure where this was going.
"And John Blaine loved me, no matter what else he did with his life. I know that."
Oh. "I'm sure he did, Starsk."
Starsky sighed deeply and rubbed a hand over his eyes. "So why do I feel like I missed something both times?"
I thought about that one for a minute before finding that I already knew the answer. "Starsky, when you love somebody, you don't see 'em like everybody else," I said gently. "You see them with your heart, and that only sees the good parts." I knew that from experience. Our relationship was incomprehensible to some, but that's only because they didn't see in Starsky everything I could.
That took a moment to sink in, but when it did, Starsky's head came up again and those warm blue eyes stared at me. "How'd you get to be so smart?" he asked with a hint of a smile.
I grinned cheekily. "I was born smart."
That earned me a weary but genuine smile and a squeeze of the arm. "Yeah, right," he muttered dryly.
We ended up talking into the wee hours of the night, or rather, mostly Starsky talking and me listening. Guess he was finally ready. I never did get back to Huck Finn, but then, I already know the ending: Huck and Jim stay friends despite all they go through. I turned in feeling exhausted but better than I had for a long time, but more importantly, I think Starsky did, too.
Something stirred against me, pulling me unwillingly from my dream. I drowsily slid an arm around my companion only to discover that she was a lot smaller than I thought. Surprised, I opened my eyes and discovered that she wasn't a she after all, and about twenty-five years too young. Mark nestled closer to me, still a little drowsy himself, plucking at my neck absently.
"How did you get here?" I asked, frowning. Last I'd checked up on him sometime during the night, he'd been fast asleep in his playpen in Starsky's bedroom.
"Oh. Right." As if I'd expected help from that source. I smiled at him. "Jailbreak, huh?"
With a put upon sigh, I rose and squinted at Starsky's clock. Six thirty-seven. Well, at least I'd gotten another hour's grace period today. How junior had gotten out of the cage and past Starsky, though, was a mystery to me until I picked him up and went over to Starsk's room to check it out.
Starsky was completely covered under the blankets, his slow, regular sighs of deep sleep the only sign of life. It was the sleep of exhaustion, I recognized, probably as much emotional fatigue as physical. No wonder Mark hadn't woken him. Although how the kid got out and then into bed with me without me rousing either would probably remain Mark's secret.
Well, I wasn't gonna wake Starsk--he needed that sleep pretty badly. Instead, we crept out into the kitchen and dug up some dry cereal and raisins and bananas for breakfast. Then, for the first time, I actually dressed the kid all by myself, changing the wet diaper like an old hand. What Starsky didn't know wouldn't hurt him. Mark cooperated with only a little bit of wiggling and impatience, much to my relief.
By the time we were done, it was nearly seven-thirty, and it occurred to me that church started in a half-hour and Starsky probably wouldn't be up for a while, anyway. I asked Mark and he seemed willing, so I packed a bag with just about everything I could think of that we might need, including crackers and a few picture books, wrote Starsky a note, and headed off for church. I just hoped I wasn't making a big mistake.
I shouldn't have worried. We settled into a pew at the back of the church, and Mark contentedly chewed on the crackers as he looked at the books. And once the crackers were gone and he'd had his juice, I procured my pocket watch for him, much to his fascination. Before I knew it, he curled up in my lap and dozed off with the watch firmly in hand. That was how I listened to the sermon, with Mark peacefully asleep on my shoulder.
He stirred awake just as the service drew to a close, measuringly watching the people I greeted on the way out. When any tried to talk to him, he just silently pressed himself closer to me. I didn't mind. I knew exactly how he felt, and I'm pretty used to playing buffer, too. Starsky and I have both had our turn with each other.
Mark seemed to have recovered his self-assurance by the time we got to the car, talking cheerfully to me the whole way home. Almost as much gibberish as my regular passenger. But the chatter stopped whenever I said anything, dark, wide eyes intent on my every word as if they mattered more than anything else. Also like my usual companion. Sometimes I wonder how much Starsky really needs me, and how much he just lets me give for my own sake.
I suppose probably as much as I do, I decided just as quickly. That's how we keep our balance.
It was nearly ten before we pulled up in front of Starsky's, although when we went in, we found him still in pajamas and looking very much like he'd just gotten up. Mark immediately wriggled down upon seeing him, and ran over for a hug.
Starsky's whole face lit up, I was happy to see, and Mark didn't seem to mind at all that Starsk hung on to him for a little longer than usual. When the kid finally pulled away to go find his trucks, Starsky looked up at me and I studied him for a moment. I liked what I saw. The soul-weary pinch to his face was gone, leaving only a little more than usual soberness behind, but that would work itself out, too. I know I tend to heal faster with Starsky around, and God knows, for some reason the reverse is true, too. And I'm so grateful for it.
A grin pulled at his mouth; he knew exactly what I was looking for and thinking, but he didn't say anything. He didn't have to. Instead, he just stood and patted my shoulder as he passed by. I silently added 'you're welcome'.
"Cee called a little bit ago, says she'll be by to pick up Mark in about a half-an-hour."
I frowned. "Already?"
"Yeah, she and Rob are going somewhere this afternoon with him. But she thinks she'll need us again in about a month or so."
"Uh-huh." The last was called out from the bedroom.
I watched as Mark followed the voice into the room, and a minute later there were sounds of loud laughter coming from the room. I didn't even want to know. With an amused shake of the head, I began to gather together Mark's stuff in the living room.
Thirty minutes later, it was a lot tougher to stay cheerful as I hugged the little monster good-bye. I still somehow couldn't see having one of my own, but it did get harder and harder each time to say good-bye. I was never very good at good-byes.
Starsky was usually the practical one, but even he got a little choked up this time, and Cee gave me a concerned glance over their heads. I shook my head; I was sure he'd be fine now. Mark had done him a lot of good, too, without question. There was nothing like a baby to strip away all the pretenses and unimportances of life.
They said their farewells, I remembered to reconfiscate my watch, and we stood at the curb and watched Mark wave to us as the car pulled away. I put an arm around Starsk's shoulders.
"Hey, you okay?"
He sighed deeply. "Yeah, sure, just a broken heart."
I smiled softly at him. "Oh, good, as long as it's nothing serious."
That almost cracked him up, then he grew serious again. "Hutch?"
He was still looking off down the street, but I don't think that's what he was seeing. "I think I'm gonna go see Guy tomorrow. Just see how he's doing, whaddaya think?"
I patted his shoulder. "I think that's a fine idea."
"Yeah. . ." he trailed off, then abruptly shook himself out of it and favored me with a bright, fond smile before he turned to go back in. I was only a step behind.
That morning's sermon came back to me, about God's grace being sufficient. It really was, but sometimes that grace took many forms. This weekend, one of them was a 14-month-old baby.
And, just like it had for me for the past eight years, perhaps also a best friend.
Written in 1998