This Story was originally published in the zine The Pits Vol II. Special thanks to Evelyn for transcribing it for the net. The author is not on the internet and doesn't have email. Comments on this story can be sent via snail mail to Flamingo, PO Box 823, Beltsville MD 20704-0823, and will be forwarded to the author.

Ex Post Facto
Katherine Robertson

"Who is it?"

Hutch rested his gun hand on the table, the .357 feeling heavy and cold in his grip, while Starsky flattened himself against the wall next to the door.

"It's Dobey, that's who! Open up!"

Hutch frowned, then nodded at his friend. "Open it real slow. And stay back until Dobey's inside." He didn't take his finger off the trigger, merely shifted his weight a little to the right so he could cover the landing. There was no sense in being careless when it seemed every crook in town was still after them.

Starsky unlocked the door and let it swing open. Dobey shoved his way in and slammed the door with a resounding bang.

"Don't either of you make any plans for the next couple of hours. There are some things that need saying." He shoved a paper bag toward the openly curious Starsky.

Starsky automatically reached for the sack and peered inside. "Hey, Cap brought us some Fritos and beer!" Juggling, he put his gun back in its holster, took out three cans from the six-pack and removed the Fritos. Holding the bag between his teeth, he opened the refrigerator, searched for a moment for a place, then set the cans on top of a carton of eggs. "No room," he muttered to himself without dropping the bag.

"Those Fritos are for me, Starsky! You can have the beer. I gave up my dinner to come over here tonight." He cast a jaundiced eye around Hutch's apartment.

Hutch smiled, but shook his head reprovingly. "Still too many calories, Captain. Now, why'd you come all the way out here? Did someone ask you to turn in your badge?" There was a bitter note in his voice, and he avoided looking at either man. He realized he was still holding his gun; after easing the hammer up he slipped it slowly back into the holster. "Sorry," he murmured. "Sit down." He indicated a chair.

Starsky walked around to the coffee table, threw the papers he'd been reading on the floor and handed out the beers. He settled himself on the couch, then turned to face the black man. "Yeah, Cap'n, we're not exactly your favorite team right now, are we?"

Dobey lowered himself into the largest chair Hutch owned. Loosening his tie, he took a long swallow of beer and wiped his mouth before he looked at either of them.

"Still think you're hot stuff for quittin' the force, don't you?" The words were spoken softly, yet fell like lead in the room. "Well, let me tell you what I honestly think. It stinks! And if you believe one goddamn thing has changed, you're wrong!" He reached for the Fritos, tossed a few in his mouth, chewing rapidly.

Starsky opened his mouth to answer, caught Hutch's faint shake of the head, and bit his lip. There was a smoldering light in his eyes that hadn't been there before. He slid further down on the couch, crossing his legs in a long X, one tennis shoe bobbing up and down.

Dobey washed down the chips with another swallow of beer, sighed, then continued, "I've asked you to come back twice, and you've said no each time. Well, I'm not here to order you back, or even to ask you to please come back. But, and I'll admit it's a big 'but'—I want to hear it again from each of you. Why did you resign?"

Both men started to talk at once, Starsky with eyes mere angry slits, Hutch grimly vehement. Finally the captain slammed the arm of his chair.

"See? Nothing's changed! You're both too damn mad to think anything out! All you can do is yell. I want to hear rational reasons why you left the force. And don't give me any of that 'nobility of the soul' shit! Your souls aren't any nobler than mine, and I've been living with the system for over twenty-six years!" He grabbed the chips again, shoveled a huge handful into his mouth, and pointed at Starsky. "You first," he said.

Starsky uncrossed his legs, hunched forward, elbows resting on his knees, hands clasped. For a long moment he said nothing, merely stared at his partner. Finally the words came tumbling out. "Hutch and me, we've been through an awful lot together, Cap'n. Sure, we've had deals go bad before. But this time we were made to finger someone who trusted us, who set his life on the line for us, for the system. And because he trusted us, Lionel got killed. Something happened to me . . . I don't hate the system, I just don't respect it anymore. For some reason all the years I wore that badge I felt sort of proud of what I was doing. It was a good feeling, until Lionel's death showed me what it really was. Can't you understand why Hutch and me . . . ?" He cocked an eyebrow at his partner, who sat quietly sipping his beer. "Besides," the dark head bowed, "I couldn't let Hutch leave—not without me."

Dobey was silent for a moment, then, eyes narrowed, he nodded. "Sure, I understand. If Hutch had been killed in the line of duty you would've quit because you couldn't go on. And if Hutch had decided to move away you would've quit and gone too, and if he'd joined the circus you would've done that, too, because running away shows everybody what you think of this society."

Starsky clenched his fists and looked at the stony face. "No! You don't understand at all! I left because I agree with my partner, and because one more broken promise would've made me hate myself even more!"

Hutch set his beer can carefully on the table, glancing sympathetically at Starsky. "Captain, we did something we've talked over many times before. There's a breaking point for everyone, and Lionel Rigger was mine. Because I believed in the system, a set of values, a man is dead. It's as simple as that." He hesitated, longing for something to ease the lump in his throat. Taking a deep breath, he continued, "Don't you see? Starsky might have stayed, not just because he wanted to get the guy who burned Lionel—we both wanted that—no, he might have stayed on because he still believes in your damned justice. Well, I don't! Not any more. And because Starsky understands that, and because he respects me," he shot a glance at the bent head, "he quit too. Now I have that to carry around." He stared again at his partner, then shoved back his chair and walked over to his front window. Pushing aside the curtain, he gazed up and down the street. "Who the hell knows what's going down? Maybe right now there's more nuts waiting to blow us away . . . ."

Dobey snorted, folding his arras across his chest. "And I still say, 'What's changed?' Has anyone thanked you for resigning? Has it gained you any new friends? Don't get dewy-eyed with me, Hutchinson! There've been contracts out on you two before. How many times have good men gone to their graves when we've been trying to protect them?" The captain shook his head, picked up his empty beer can and crumpled it slowly. "That's about how long it takes for someone to get killed, or for a hit to be arranged. But that isn't your problem any more, is it? Nope, beneath your dignity. You're too honest to cheat, too noble to lie, too goddamned white, for your own good!"

He stood up, suddenly tired-looking, and went to the refrigerator. Taking out another beer, he checked the windows and sat down again. "And where does all this fancy talk of yours leave Huggy? You put your friend out on a limb—or haven't you thought about that?"

"Huggy told us to get lost!" Starsky snapped. "He said he didn't trust us any more. What the hell are we supposed to do?" He met Hutch's glance. "Just what do you mean about Huggy?" he asked quietly.

"The word is that Huggy's lost his main man. He's like a hermit crab without his shell. There's no muscle to protect the cops' snitch. Huggy's the best source in this town, and the most reliable, plus being a valuable friend. Or was that all hype so he'd stay in line?" The captain watched the two men, a disgusted look on his face.

"If anything happens to Huggy . . . ." Starsky's voice trailed off and he looked at his hands, the muscles of his jaw knotting.

Hutch stared into space, conscious of the frown deepening on his face. "Haven't we bought enough grief?" He began folding the newspapers into a neat pile. "I thought we were friends . . . that you cared." Resentment flared and he glared at the stolid black man. "Why're you really here? I refuse to believe you came out of curiosity just so we could lay it on the line." He ran a finger over his mustache, privately accepting it as another form of rebellion for him. Eyes suddenly on Starsky, he asked, "So level with us, okay?"

At first the captain sat still, then he awkwardly reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a sheaf of papers. He held them out, speaking rapidly. "Claiborne asked for copies of these before he asked you back on the force. I thought you might like to see them." He stared down at the folded documents, adding, "Before I give you these, I'd like to know what you plan to do for a living, after you get this case out of your systems."

"And assuming we live long enough for jobs to be important," Starsky interrupted gloomily.

Hutch turned to lock glances with Starsky, suddenly feeling cold. "I've been thinking of going back to college—maybe law school—and becoming a lawyer . . . ." He half-smiled at Starsky's astonished look. "Yeah, Starsk, these past couple of weeks of job hunting have convinced me I'm not cut out for a regular nine-to-five grind." He shot a quick glance at the curtains, watching car headlights as they reflected on the material. Abruptly he shook his head. "Shit! I don't know!"

Starsky, hands folded on his lap, said thoughtfully, "I never knew you wanted to be a lawyer."

Hutch felt his partner's withdrawal and spoke softly. "Hey, I'm not saying that's what I'm going to do. But it is one way to fight back. Look at the number of times we've been aced on some legal technicality." He turned, including Dobey in the conversation, but his eyes never left Starsky's. "Maybe it's another one of my dumb ideas. You've always claimed to be the brains of this team."

Starsky nodded. "You'd hate livin' in those stinkin' courtrooms. We need to do something sort of outdoorsey. Maybe . . . ?" His voice dropped, too low to be heard by either of the other men.

"Bums?" Dobey suggested. He laughed mirthlessly, his belly jiggling. "Starsky, I can see it all now. You two trying one job after another, and quitting each one after a day, a week, a month. Drifters. That's not your style." He opened the papers, spreading them with both hands before he pointed to them. "There's your life."

Starsky reached for one of the sheets, scanned it, and handed it to Hutch. "That's yours." He picked up another one of the papers.

Hutch accepted the page and began to read. He could hear Starsky clearing his throat from time to time, but his eyes never left the page. Dobey had managed to lay their nearly eight years with Metro before them. Reduced in size, Xeroxed, the print held a fascination he couldn't explain or resist. How had they done that much, lived that much, cared that much? A feeling of satisfaction, unbidden, seeped through him. He finished the first page, set it down, noting that Starsky was doing the same. Their eyes met, then each picked up page two of their lives.

Without warning Dobey began to talk, dark eyes brimming with anger. He got to his feet, moving his large bulk with surprising grace and agility around the room. "Tell me, white boys, what was it like when you joined the force? Both of you went through the Academy together, palled around together. Probably dreamed the same high-flyin' dreams together. No bad taste in your mouths then, right? Well, have you ever wondered what it was like for a black cop twenty-six years ago? There wasn't any law on the books saying we had to be hired. Quotas kept us out, not in. Have you ever once wondered where I took my training? What it was like for me? You think you know about the system! Have you ever lost arrests because the testimony of a white junkie was worth more than that of a black cop?" He smiled bitterly. "No, not hardly. Let me tell you I was one of the angriest damn cops you ever saw, until I realized it was me on trial—not the system!" His tone changed and he walked back to stand directly in front of the two men, peering down at them. "Think about it, both of you. Did you do everything that you could as officers of the law? Did you act in the best interests of all concerned? Did you fail in any way to uphold your end of the bargain?" He stared at Starsky. "Did you at any time leave your post of duty for any reason whatsoever, Officer?"

Hutch rose to his feet, face flushing with anger. "That's not fair," he whispered. "That's a goddamn cheap shot, Captain, and you know it." He closed the distance between himself and Starsky, laying his hand on the sagging shoulder. "Starsky thought I was hurt, you couldn't expect him to . . . "

Dobey shook his head. "Wrong! I could—and did—expect him and you to do the very best you could. My whole line of questioning is, Did the system fail—or did you?" He lapsed into silence, pulling out a handkerchief and mopping his face. "Just finish reading those, and I'll be going." His tone held no life, and there was an air of terrible fatigue about him. For the first time he looked old.

Hutch slowly went back to his seat and picked up the fact sheets. Names, faces, dates, all flitted through his consciousness, but superimposed over them all were his partner's haggard features. Anger filtered into his system and he threw down the page. He didn't need these memories. They hurt too much. He slid his glance surreptitiously toward Starsky, abruptly aware that his partner's reactions differed from his own.

Starsky was leaning forward now, page clutched between his fingers, eyes scanning the typed print. As he read, a faint flush mounted his cheeks and his hands trembled. The stricken look he'd had when Dobey had accused him of negligence was gone.

"What is it, Starsk?"

Starsky merely shook his head and continued to read. Finally he set the sheet carefully on top of the first one. He avoided looking at Dobey.

The captain tried to smooth out a small bump in the rug with his shoe, but stopped when another one took its place. "Has it ever occurred to you that the men you're leaving behind, your fellow officers, are being demoralized and weakened by your resignations?" His gaze was softer now, almost compassionate, but the frown still creased his forehead. "I'll admit I'm condemning your actions, but in my position as captain, not as your friend. Do you see that? What I'm doing is questioning your motives. And you've been cops long enough to know what I mean. Tom Reddin quit the force to go into politics, Dorfmann into law. Then there's Joe Wambaugh. I don't find fault with any of those men. You, I do!" He crumpled the empty Fritos bag, picked up his beercan and went into the kitchen, searching for the trash can.

"It won't wash, Cap'n," Starsky said, following him. "Too many good people have died because of us. I've got enough on my conscience without adding more." He shot a look at Hutch, who nodded agreement.

Dobey shrugged, but his expression removed the callousness attached to the gesture. "Sure, a lot of people died. Every undercover cop has that to live with. It's one of the reasons you play so close to the edge. You know someone may die if you're careless. I don't think you'll find any solace in the fact that every police officer goes through these periods of self-doubt. He wouldn't be a good cop if he didn't." He paused momentarily, clearing his throat. "Bart Edwards was in my office yesterday—he cried for twenty minutes. Wants to quit. His wife's leaving him, and he can't handle it any more. I talked him into a leave of absence, getting away with her for awhile . . . ."

"It won't work, Captain," Hutch stated bitterly. "Van and I . . . ." He met Starsky's eyes, then looked away, face carefully blank. "It won't work," he repeated.

Dobey became deadly serious. "Remember what happened to Edith and my kids? Don't you think those doubts have crossed my mind? That's the whole point! What happened to you will happen to officers all over the world!" He halted, then asked quietly, "Do you believe in God?"

"Don't drag faith into this, Captain," Hutch warned. "My answer might surprise you."

Dobey ignored him and focused his attention on Starsky, who crossed the room to sit heavily on the couch. "I'm not talking about the 'Christians against the Lions' mentality—even though there are plenty of cops who think that way. I'm referring to morality. Conscience. The need to feel God's on your side."

"That's a bunch of shit!" Starsky looked up, eyes blazing. "My dad was the best cop I knew, a good, religious man—and what did it get him? I watched him die!" He took in a long, shuddering breath. "And my mother, she's always been good, and what did it get her? She put up with years of hell. Me—now Nicky. So don't preach to me about sides!" He stared out the window and the room was silent.

Dobey's face distorted with deep lines of anger. "So write a letter to God! Sit on your asses and whine about things not being fair! You want the white bread, the good wine, the power to flash that badge around—yeah, the power that badge gives you—but when things get tough you want out!" Fury flashed from his eyes. "So you got the sonuvabitch who killed Lionel. Don't you want the bastard who paid him? Maybe, just maybe, this is your chance to be knights in shining armor!"

He looked at the sullen faces of the two men and sighed, his anger fading into defeat. "Your partnership, think about that. Haven't the good times outweighed the bad? Take time to remember them."

"You mean the times a grateful citizen has said, 'Fuck you, Mr. Pig'?" Hutch sneered. "I haven't forgotten those good times at all." He took his beercan, started to crumple it as the captain had, but set it down again. Glancing at Starsky, he flushed suddenly, eyes misting.

The captain stood up, straightening his tie. Without another word he marched into the bathroom and slammed the door. Starsky looked at Hutch for a long moment, then grinned feebly. "Old bear," he said. "I bet he misses my reports. The paperwork is probably a foot thick down there."

"He probably misses my reports," Hutch corrected, noting the wistful sound of his partner's voice.

"Your reports? It was my notes that got you through all those years! You've got a memory like a lace bra!"

"Now wait a minute!" Hutch pointed a long finger at his friend. "I had to start typing those goddamn reports because of dumb phrases like that!"

"Huh! You just sat there and admitted I was the smart one. You always needed me to keep your ass out of a sling!" By now Starsky was up and dancing, boxer-style, in the center of the room. Half-serious, he challenged Hutch, "C'mon, you big moose, you could stand to lose a few pounds."

Like a whirlwind Hutch launched himself out of the chair. Putting his head down, he butted Starsky right in the midsection, carrying his back toward the bathroom door. As they lost their balance, the door opened and Dobey stepped out. Starsky's rump connected with the captain's stomach, and the air rushed out of the astonished man in a loud whoosh. All three landed in a heap on the bathroom floor.

"Are you two insane?" Dobey gasped. "Help me up! I was nuts to come over here!" He flailed around, trying to loosen his tie from Hutch's grasp. But neither of the two younger men was listening to him.

A faint chuckle came from the middle of the heap. As Hutch untangled his feet from under Starsky's arm, he squeezed his partner's leg. "Crazy jackass. Why'd you want to fight?"

Starsky rolled over and looked up into Hutch's smiling face. "I wanted to hit something and you looked big enough." He grinned, blue eyes unfathomable. "You have to admit we had some great times, partner." An expression of doubt wiped the smile from his face. "Hey, Hutch, we're not partners any more! There's nothing to be partners in— I mean . . . ." He cleared his throat, voice suddenly husky.

"I know what you mean, Starsk." Hutch reached down, grabbed him by the hands and pulled him up. "You'll always be my partner. Nobody else would put up with me," he said quietly. He turned to the captain, offering his hand, and Starsky did the same. Together they tugged until they had him once more under full sail.

"I need another beer," Starsky declared. "Cap'n, you want one?"

Dobey hesitated, then nodded. His eyes, calm now, surveyed the two men and a subtle smile curved his mouth. He moved back to his chair and sat down once more. "Are you two planning something?" There was a look of near-contentment on his dark face.

Hutch, features composed, studied Starsky as he brought over the beer. "No, nothing's changed—that is—to tell the truth . . . ."

"What Hutch can't get past the chip on his shoulder is the fact that he—Now what's the matter?" Starsky cast a bewildered look at Hutch.

"Don't mix metaphors like that! I can see it coming—I'm the only person on this earth who understands you and the way you talk." He sent a glance of helpless amusement at Dobey, who sat staring at Starsky, mouth slightly agape. "See what all those years at Metro have done to him?" Hutch was smiling broadly now and he tilted his head back. "Jesus, what am I going to do?"

Starsky ambled over to stand beside him. "And what about me?" he demanded. "I've spent years trying to pound some sense into that thick skull of yours. You never want to come down out of the clouds."

"Sense, is it? Well, who in the hell didn't know a guinea pig from a chinchilla? I don't know how you learned to tell the boys from the girls."

Starsky laughed, a challenging light in his eyes. "When you grow up, I'll tell you the difference." He started to say something else, but, at Hutch's silence, merely stood gazing at him.

Dobey cleared his throat and began to pick up the papers he'd brought with him. "Well, I can see I'm not going to get anywhere with you two tonight. Your paychecks should be processed by Thursday, but I'll check with Payroll for you. From the looks of things here, you're just one step from poverty row already." He scrutinized the kitchen. "Just when do you two eat?"

Both men approached him. "Captain, may I keep my—uh—"Hutch gestured to the papers Dobey held, and shrugged. "They aren't exactly job references, but maybe someday . . . ."

"Yeah, Cap'n," Starsky chimed in. "Might be something to show my kids." He flushed. "Well, I was proud to be a cop." He stared long and hard at Hutch, then spun around, facing the window. "Forget it, just forget it," he muttered. He crossed the few feet to the window and pulled aside the curtain, searching the darkened street.

Hutch bit his lip. "Starsk, come here. Please." He watched as his partner slowly moved away from the window and approached him, face set in grim lines, hands shoved deep in his pockets.

Hutch closed his eyes for an instant, then opened them wide. "Will you be honest with me? It's very, very important." Out of the corner of his eye he could see the captain's figure tense, but he concentrated exclusively on the man before him.

Starsky didn't flinch. His gaze met Hutch's. "Yeah. What is it?" The dark blue eyes were steady, never wavering.

"Starsk, do you want to go back? Rejoin the force?" Hutch's voice was low, stripped of any emotion, sounding drained. He put his hand on Starsky's arm, pressing his fingers deep. "I want the truth."

For a moment there was only the sound of the three men breathing, then a siren sent its call, shrill and insistent, through the night. Starsky dropped his gaze first, but met his partner's eyes again.

"Yes, since you're asking, I want to go back. I feel like a quitter, like I'm running around in circles. Like somehow I've betrayed my dad. I guess I've been a cop too long, Hutch. I'm sorry, really sorry." He placed a hand over his partner's and his dark head bowed. "Sorry."

Hutch stood stock still for a long moment, then his hand fell from Starsky's arm. He walked over to Dobey, who had maintained an uneasy silence, and bent over him, fixing his eyes on the serious face.

"You heard him. Can he get back on the force?" He heard Starsky suck in his breath. "And maybe, after I've thought it over . . . ." He swallowed, adding, "And can I?"

* * *

It was one in the morning. Hutch lay sprawled on the couch, one arm over his eyes, nearly asleep. After Dobey had gone, he and Starsky had made a couple of omelets, using absolutely everything in the refrigerator that smelled decent. Then they'd picked up the beer cans that had accumulated over the past week. While Starsky was rummaging for a trash bag he'd come across an unopened bottle of Black Muscat. Together they'd emptied it, and now, still languorous from its effects, unwilling to end the evening, they lay in the shadowed room, savoring the peace there.



"Feel like talking?"

Taking his arm down and turning on his side to face Starsky, Hutch murmured, "Mmm. Depends on the subject."

Starsky, head propped up on several pillows, sprawled face-up on the floor. "I want to talk about us, partner," he said quietly.

A faint alarm went off inside Hutch, and he strained to see Starsky's expression, but his face was hidden in the curve of his arm. All he could really see was the faint outline of the slender body, backlit from the street. "Us?" he repeated finally. "What about us?"

Starsky paused, shifting his weight. "Hutch, why do I get the feelin' that things aren't the way they used to be? With us, I mean. I'm worried," he said simply. He let out a long sigh, and watched the lights from passing cars flash across the ceiling.

Hutch swallowed, knowing instinctively what was to come. They were about to do what they'd done in the past: evaluate, reinforce, mull over, shore up, whatever two best friends did to protect their friendship. Erosion had set in; their relationship had been severely tested and he acknowledged that. Still, he thought, it was the single most important thing in his life—the one thing worth saving. Being friends with Starsky was better than medals, stronger than family. They'd stayed fast, never doubting or swerving in their loyalty to one another. He loved the man staring up at the ceiling with a very special love, one that others never got to share. But sometimes they got careless, took each other's feelings for granted. He guessed this was one of those times. Well, let his partner put it into words. He'd listen.

"So what about us, partner?".

Starsky turned to prop himself up on his elbows, somehow managing to speak with his chin cupped in his hands. "Are you mad? About my wanting to go back?"

So that was it. Relief swept through him, and he smiled in the dark. '"No. I'm not angry, not really." But deep inside he felt an uneasiness stirring. Maybe he was angry—and yes, maybe he did feel betrayed. "Starsky, what made you change your mind? I thought you felt like I do—did." He hoped his partner hadn't noticed his slip.

There was a pause before Starsky replied, "I've got a funny feelin'. About this case, about what Dobey said—you know, the importance of what we do. It is important, isn't it?" The words hung, trembling in the still room.

Tears misted Hutch's eyes as he listened to Starsky's voice take on the little-boy tone. Why did he always feel like big brother? Hell, they were the same age, so why the assumption that Starsky always looked to him for answers? He mulled it over, then accepted that it was the truth. Whenever his partner wrestled with a problem he couldn't solve he'd end up dumping it in his lap. And sometimes Hutch was lucky enough to work out a solution, so Starsky's trust and faith doubled. Without further thought he said, "Sure, our work's always been important."

"You lyin' bastard! Why can't you be honest with me? What we've done, doesn't amount to shit!"

Hutch sat straight up, feeling all his pretty delusions shatter around him. Bewildered, he asked, "What's wrong? I—I don't understand." He knew even then that that was a lie. The uneasy feeling was back, gnawing at his innards.

Quivering with rage, Starsky leapt to his feet and paced before the window, a slim shadow in the light. "I know this—that you don't want to go back! Why did you do it? Why didn't you tell me to get a one-way ticket to hell? Just something, something so I can believe you still care enough to level with me!" His voice was muffled as he stood with his back to the couch where Hutch sat, still rigid with amazement. There was the sound of something solid slamming against the wall, and then a stifled curse.

Hutch rose, astonished as his own rage and resentment built. It scared hell out of him that he could still feel this much. He'd thought some part of him was dead, had died at that amusement park when Soldier and his goons . . . .

"Just a goddamn minute! If you've felt this was all along, why didn't you tell me? How come it's all my fault now? It takes two to tango—old friend, old partner! Why are you laying this whole trip on me?"

He listened to himself, unable to stop the torrent of words spilling from his mouth, yet feeling a curious relief in the process. He was tempted to grab his jacket and run away, leaving behind the moment's ugliness. Instead, his mind still reeling from shock, he forced himself to calm down, to clamp shut his natural impulse to have it out. He inhaled deeply, trying to steady his shaking body.

"Okay, are you going to listen to me, Starsky? Hear me?" What the hell was he saying? He didn't even know what day it was any more, how in hell could he hope to explain anything to his hurting friend across the room? Friend. Since when was that all Starsky was to him—just a friend?

"I'm afraid, Hutch. Why aren't things the way they used to be?"

He was glad the apartment was dark. It would hurt too much to look at one another just then. He pictured Starsky's eyes mirroring his own pain, and again he wanted to run. But he couldn't. He owed it to the man to try and patch the gaping hole in their relationship.


"Yeah." Voice empty, flat.

"I'm sorry this had to happen. Jesus, I'm sorry! But I felt so useless—do you know what I mean?" He felt rather than saw Starsky's nod. "When Soldier blew up my car and killed Lionel—and then . . . then had the balls to arrange that swap—I thought we were going to die. Starsk, I felt it so deep in my bones . . . ." He swallowed, knowing he still had the feeling that they still weren't safe. But he kept silent about it.

There was a stirring in the room and he saw Starsky raise his head. His voice was a mere whisper in the shadows. "To my dyin' day, I'll never figure out why he didn't just waste us both. Hell, Allison didn't mean anything to them after her father was dead." Starsky lapsed into silence, but this time there was a different feel to the stillness.

Hutch rubbed his chin, taking a deep breath. Whatever happened, he had to preserve the feeling of awareness they shared right now. It was as if they were touching even though a good ten feet separated them. He felt a current, a crackling aura, emanate from his partner and he moved slightly closer to him, his footfalls sounding abnormally loud.

"Remember what Dobey asked us? If we believe in God? And I said my answer might surprise him? Do you believe there's a God, Starsk? The truth." He closed the rest of the distance between them and, with trembling hands on the tight shoulders, turned Starsky to him, peering at the shadowy features. "Look at me," he whispered, "and tell me if you believe in God."

Silence. Darkness lightened only by the touching. Then a faint uneasy movement and Starsky replied, the answer a deep sigh. "Yeah, I—guess I still do. 'Cause you and me—still here. But what's that got to do with—us?"

Hutch, hands still maintaining contact, heard his voice shake as he answered. "Because ever since—for the past four years, ever since the time you got shot at Giovanni's, I've felt that no one and nothing would help us. Even after you recovered, my faith was gone—and when I saw lousy things going down—things we had a part in, I piled the blame on a God I didn't even believe in. It was easier than admitting the truth."

He let go suddenly, needing to put distance between them, unable to hold onto his calm. He stared blindly out the window, head down, words whispered into the night. "But the other day, when we faced Soldier, and I had to stand there know—you trusted me to save you and Allison—I had to stand there and watch you walk, step by step, closer and closer—I prayed. I prayed so hard, Starsk, because if anything'd happened to you . . . ." He tried to stifle the sob, and failed. "So help me, partner . . . ." He put a hand on the windowsill to brace himself, wanting to escape the awful pain in his chest, the pounding of his heart. More than anything, he wanted to run away.

Arms encircled his shoulders from behind, drawing him into their comforting warmth. He was aware of having been cold, of having felt abandoned. The mere presence of this friend dispelled all the loneliness and isolation. He slumped into the strong arms, allowing the tears to surface at last.

"Shh. It's okay. I'm here. Soldier's dead, you shot him. Oh, Hutch, they're all gone!" Starsky rubbed his shoulders, voice shaky. "Shh . . . come on, babe, come on."

Hutch pulled away after a minute, reluctant to give up the closeness but needing to finish his explanation. Starsky let go and stood unmoving. "I figured out, when we lived through that, there might be—no, must be a God. And maybe, just maybe, we'd been given a chance to do something with our lives that didn't involved cops and robbers, good guys and bad. Where I didn't have to be afraid each morning that you might die because I louse up or I don't get lucky. And, tonight . . . when you said you wanted to go back . . . I thought you didn't care about us any more, if we lived or died. I believed you really wanted to take all those stupid chances . . . ." He looked around at Starsky. "You do care, don't you?" He was shocked at how important the question was.

A chuckle, rich and throaty, rose in the room. "You big, dumb country hick! And I thought college made you smart! Of course I care!" Steely fingers dug into Hutch's arms until he winced. "You're the best friend I've ever had, Hutch." Starsky's tone changed, becoming serious. "When we first became partners I used to try and figure out why we thought so different, why we weren't like the other cops. And why we were so special that everyone else noticed it, too. And after awhile I couldn't think about us not being together, not doing this job. Being alone . . . ."

He withdrew his hands, turning his head. "I don't know what makes us go out there day after day and try to change things, Hutch. When my dad died, I hated cops, blamed them. Back East survival's the name of the game, not who pulls the trigger. Then I came out here. Things were different—easier." He locked glances with Hutch. "And when I met you—everything was all right again. Dammit, I can't explain . . . ." He stopped as though poised for a word of understanding and acceptance that Hutch couldn't give. Then, suddenly: "Jesus, Hutch! Lionel Rigger died because I care so much about you!"

From somewhere deep inside Hutch acknowledged the debt, accepted the burden tendered him, and knew wonderment. Starsky's pain was his as well. Impulsively he pulled Starsky to him. It was all right . . . everything was going to be all right. For a brief moment he savored their touching, the solid body he held, and then, unbidden, terror welled within him. Starsky—so brave and so damned foolhardy at times. Are we really so safe? "I love you," he murmured.

"Hey," came the soft reply. "It's gonna be all right. We're back where we belong, huh?" The strong arms hugged him close. "Cops, and partners, and everything."

"Yeah," Hutch managed, but he made himself let go, take a step back, burying the fear that was still with him and that he knew would never leave him. He refused to let it ruin this time, to drown him. He reached up, ruffling the dark curls, feeling better when Starsky flashed a sudden smile. Grinning back, he held onto the returning sense of rightness. Together, always.

Starsky gave a huge yawn, scratching his head. "Dunno, about you," he said, but I'm starved. How's about some waffles over at the House of Pancakes? Go good about now." He cocked an enquiring brow. "My stomach's growlin', Hutch."

The fear flared again, then subsided. They would go on, and he would try again, give the wheel of the gods a little more time. Starsky and he, grist for that mill. What could go wrong? They could do anything—together. Tomorrow they would meet with Huggy at the porno moviehouse and then, maybe, with Claiborne's help they'd clean up this whole mess at last.

Softly, he asked, "Mind if I join you?"