Published in Celebration: An Anthology Zine, Remembering a decade of S&H, 1985. Scanned/first proof-read by Cyanne, second proofing by SHaron.
Won't you tell me what's wrong?
I haven't got a clue.
Is there something we can take for this,
Or something we can do?
Together you and I have had so much,
There's so much to lose,
And I think we're losing touch.
(Authors note: The reader should know that this story takes certain liberties with the timeline of the episodes, as aired in U.S.A., placing 'Starsky vs. Hutch' before 'Targets without a Badge' where it belongs, assuming it belongs anywhere, which is a whole different fight.)
David Starsky prowled back and forth on the sidewalk, his steps short, irritated. He checked his watch for the tenth time in as many minutes, then lowered his hand in frustration, looking around for something to kick. "Shit. Just what I needed. Today of all days, Mr. Perfect's gotta be late, and with my car yet. You'd think, he borrows a person's car 'cause that hunka junk he drives is in the shop again, he could at least be on time, and not leave me standing out here talking to myself. 'Gotta run a quick errand in the morning, Starsk' and me, like a dummy, I let him have my goddammed car."
Suddenly struck by a new thought, Starsky froze in midstep. "Aw, hell, the turkey probably cracked it up and doesn't have the guts to tell me." He scowled at the quiet street. "Of all the inconsiderate ... least he coulda called, let me know he was gonna be this late. Thinks I got nothin' better to do than spend my life out here on this godforsaken sidewalk."
He glanced at his watch again. "Shit, I better go call him. If he didn't wreck my car, which he probably did, he must be shacked up with some fancy broad and forgot something simple, like the fact we gotta work this morning."
Exhaling impatiently, Starsky turned around sharply and stalked back to his apartment. He was fumbling in his pocket for the keys when a car horn blared from the curb. Starsky jumped, startled, barely managing to catch the keys one-handedly as they slipped through his fingers. He jammed them back into his jeans as his mood darkened from gray to pitch-black. He walked slowly, deliberately, back to the street, and stood there glaring at the driver of the apparently undamaged Torino.
"Good morning," Hutch beamed up at his partner. The grin faded slightly as Starsky ignored him to walk once slowly around the car before stopping by the driver's door. Hutch sighed and slid across the seat as Starsky climbed in behind the wheel.
"Terrific," Hutch muttered just too softly for Starsky to make out exactly what he was saying. "I run all over the frigging town at seven frigging A.M. to get a frigging birthday present for the guy, and he can't even be bothered to say hello." Hutch shook his head slowly, one hand unconsciously patting the front pocket of his leather blazer where the precious slips of cardboard were tucked. Then he grabbed for the dash as Starsky threw the car into gear and roared into the flowing traffic.
"What the hell are you trying--" Hutch clamped his teeth down over the rest of the comment. He took a deep, steadying breath. "Not today," he muttered. Determination gleamed in his blue eyes as he turned back to Starsky. One hand strayed to the pocket again and the grin returned. "Good morning," he said with renewed, if slightly forced, cheerfulness.
The grin vanished more abruptly this time. "What?"
"I said you're late."
"Hey, I didn't know I was punching a time-clock. Dock my pay if it bothers you so damned much."
"You coulda called, at least."
"I wasn't near a phone. Besides, it's only a couple of minutes past nine. What's the big deal?"
"The big deal," Starsky said slowly and distinctly, "is that letting me know would have been ... considerate."
Hutch stared at his partner, his earlier high spirits dying under the waves of animosity radiating from the other man. "Thank you, Emily Post. Next time, by all means, I'll try to be more ... considerate."
"That would make a nice switch."
Hutch glared at him, looking for the perfect retort, then just leaned back in sudden defeat, exasperated and confused--as usual of late--by Starsky's continuing moodiness.
"Good morning to you, too," the blond muttered softly. "And welcome to another glorious day in the wonderful world of cops and robbers."
* * *
At the office, things went rather quickly from bad to worse. It took Starsky just over fifteen minutes to antagonize everybody in the place, from Dobey to the guy who came to deliver the replacement water jar for the bubbler in the corner. Finally, in desperation, Hutch forced him out of the building and into the Torino, wanting to get away before someone actually figured out where they could get their hands on tar and feathers in the middle of Los Angeles at ten-thirty on a Friday morning.
He kept hoping that things would get better as the day wore on, but his every attempt to draw his partner out met only with silence or monosyllabic grunts. After a while he just stopped trying and concentrated on staring out of the window.
It was just after their usual lunchtime when Hutch noticed that Starsky kept glancing at his watch. "Hey, I'm getting hungry," he said, his enthusiasm sounding forced, even to his own ears. "How about some food?"
"There's that new taco place out on Ventura. Want to try it?" Surely such an unprecedented suggestion coming from him would stir some kind of response from the human garbage disposal.
"Gee, you're a lot of fun today. Saving your vocal cords so you can devote them to science?"
"Lay off, willya, Hutch?"
"Well, that's three more words than usual. Maybe we're making progress."
"I said, lay off. You're a real pain in the butt today, ya know?"
"Hey, sweetheart, being around you lately is no picnic," Hutch snapped. "If it wasn't your--" He broke off abruptly. "Buddy, if there's something bothering you why can't we talk it out? Always worked before."
Starsky, slumped wearily against the seat, glanced over at him. He flicked on the right turn signal as they stopped for the light. One hand rubbed absently at the back of his neck, as if to smooth out unseen tensions, "Hutch--"
"Look, I'm sorry. maybe I've been kinda grouchy lately ..."
"Maybe?" Hutch interrupted.
"Yeah, well, things have been sort of getting to me lately. I'll get over it."
Hutch hesitated, then said softly, "Is it still Kira?"
"Who? Oh, Christ, no. Of course not."
Before Hutch could say anymore, the air was filled with the sudden scream of rubber as Starsky made the turn too sharply and slid to a stop in front of the small stucco building. Hutch glared at him briefly, but then the sight of the restaurant claimed his dismayed attention. The front of the building was festooned with wildly colored pictures of sombreros. Smaller straw hats over the doorway resolved themselves into the words TACO TICO, pointing toward the entrance. Hutch thought maybe the sign should have read "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here" or something. He winced in anticipation of the forthcoming meal, and checked the parking lot for survivors, but except for the Torino the lot was empty.
"This place doesn't look half bad," Starsky said, his voice almost cheerful.
"Oh, definitely not half. Uh, Starsk, maybe--"
"No way, partner mine. You're the one suggested it, remember? And I've been meaning to give the place a try anyway. You mind the radio and I'll get the food."
"I could come along," Hutch suggested hopefully. "Help choose."
"Nope. This way it'll be a surprise."
"I think the word is shock."
"Coward." Starsky started to open the door, then stopped. "Damn. Forgot to cash a check and I'm flat. Could you--?"
Hutch sighed and took out his wallet. Wasn't much left inside after his massive expenditure earlier, but he extricated a ten and held it out. "Hey, Starsky, you didn't forget about tonight, didja?"
Starsky's face was blank. "Tonight?"
"Yeah. We're going out for a drink in honor of your birthday. Get an early start on tomorrow. Remember? I'm even buying."
Starsky twisted the tenspot between his fingers. "Well, actually I'm tired. Maybe we should just forget it."
Hutch didn't say anything, just stared at him.
Starsky met the gaze and something flickered in the azure eyes. "Oh, hell, never mind. Sure, we'll go. Maybe a few beers is just what I need."
"Great. "Hutch grinned. "We'll stop by your place so you can get into some decent clothes and then make a night of it."
Starsky smoothed the front of his old blue teeshirt. "I didn't realize this was gonna be formal."
"I didn't say formal; I said decent."
"Well if you're gonna get insulting about it ..."
"Starsky, go get the food. Although that's probably not the right word for whatever comes out of that place."
"You know what your problem is, buddy?"
"Yeah, " Hutch said with a laugh, "but I'm stuck with you anyway." He wondered at the dark flickering that showed again in his partner's eyes, then went on in the same light tone. "Go get it; we might as well face the music."
"Coming right up."
"Probably," Hutch said darkly.
He watched his partner strut across the parking lot. There was still a shadow across his mind, but Hutch pushed the worry aside. Maybe Starsky's mood was finally turning around. He'd probably be back to his normal self by day's end.
A mixed blessing, at best, Hutch thought. He wondered again why there no other cars in the parking lot.
* * *
Starsky ordered the food from a bored counterman, then headed for the payphone in the corner. He dropped a dime into the slot and punched up a seemingly endless string of numbers. The phone on the other end rang ten times and he was about to hang up when a woman finally answered. "Who's this? "she asked, sounded breathless.
"Aunt Rose? David. Is Nick there?"
"No, of course not. Why should he be here? Why should you be here? Your mother just out of the hospital, and not able to take care of herself, so why should her two strong sons be here when she needs them?"
Starsky closed his eyes and leaned against the cool tile wall next to the phone.
"Aunt Rose, where is Nick?"
"How should I know? You think I'm bigshot Nicholas Starsky's social secretary? He's out. Out is out. And so where are you, Mr. Hotshot Policeman?"
"I'm in L.A., of course. Having lunch."
"'Having lunch in L.A.',--he says. I'm the one should be having lunch in L.A. You know who is having lunch with your Uncle Al?"
"How should I know? He's in L.A. I'm here. It should be you taking care of your mother. The doctor says she shouldn't be alone right now. But do her sons care? No, only her sister. It's a good thing, at least, she has a sister."
"Aunt Rose, you know how much I appreciate your being there. But it's not that simple. I can't just pick up and leave my job and everything out here." Leave everyone, he added silently. "Mom wouldn't want that."
"And how much do you know about what your mother wants--you, her long-distance son? When was the last time you came back to visit, except when she's in the hospital? Big deal. You fly into town, say hi, very busy back home, Ma, and fly away. And this time not even that. Only flowers. Maybe it's good you're so far away. You don't have to lay in bed every night and listen to the woman cry because she's all alone. But don't worry--you can come back and visit her in the funeral home."
"Please, Aunt Rose--"
The beefy man behind the counter called out, "Number 52." When no one answered he yelled again, "Hey, you on the phone, this stuff is ready."
Starsky waved a hand in response and straightened, his head aching as it did after every call to New York lately. "Aunt Rose, I gotta go. Tell Ma I love her. And when Nick comes in, tell him we gotta talk. I won't be home until late tonight, but I'll be in all day tomorrow. Tell him to call me, okay?"
"Of course, why not? I'm just a telephone answering service. I'll tell your brother to call you. I'll tell your mother you exist, but that running around Los Angeles with a gun is more important to you than she is. So she'll understand. So she'll go live among strangers. Maybe she'll be better off."
"Aunt Rose, I gotta go. I'll call again soon. 'Bye."
Starsky barely heard the answering farewell as he hung up the receiver. Biting his lower lip so hard it hurt, he walked back to the counter, paid for and picked up two white paper bags that were already soaked through with grease, and walked back out into the sunshine that did nothing to lighten his mood. It felt like the weight of the world was bowing his shoulders down and he could feel unshed tears burning like red-hot rivulets in his eyes.
Hutch drummed his fingers against the dashboard, beginning to feel like somebody had poured itching powder on his skin and the name of the stuff was David Michael Starsky. Blast, he thought, just when I thought things were getting to be okay again, he comes out of that damned ptomaine factory looking like one of those great stone-faces on Mt. Rushmore. Partner, this Starsky-Hyde routine is making me crazy.
He glanced down in disgust at the large hot sauce stain on the front of his beige slacks, grimacing at the lingering taste of the concoction Starsky had handed to him. The taste of that stuff would probably linger for years. No wonder Starsky was acting so schizoid. The garbage he eats must have finally rotted his brain.
"Will you cut that out?" Starsky snapped suddenly.
"Drumming your fingers on the dash like that. You been doing it for the last half hour and it's making me crazy."
"I'm making you crazy? You force me to eat at that poison palace and then claim I'm making you crazy?"
"What was wrong with the place? I liked it."
"What was wrong with it, huh? Just tell me that."
"Oh, nothing was wrong with it--if you don't count the food. It probably would have been a great place to wash your hands, except that the men's room had no hot water or paper towels--or soap. Will you look at these pants?"
"Serves you right for dressing that way on the streets."
"What's wrong with the way I'm dressed? At least I don't look like I've been sleeping in the car for three months running. Or at least, I didn't."
"Meaning that I do?"
"If the jeans fit ..."
"That's why you're wearing these fancy pants? Jeans don't fit no more."
Hutch reddened. Dammit, Starsky knew that he was self-conscious about the extra pounds. He was trying to lose them.
"Maybe you could drop a few ounces by getting rid of the hairy thing above your mouth."
The radio squawked into sudden life. "All units in the vicinity of 23 and Collins, a 211 in progress at the jewelry store that location."
Hutch grabbed for the microphone as Starsky hit the siren and sent the Torino squealing around the corner. "Zebra Three responding," he snapped. He slapped the Mars light on the roof, then grabbed the dash as they careened around another corner and screeched to a halt in front of Reed Jewelers. Hutch leapt from the car and raced for the front door as Starsky charged toward the sound of gunfire in the alley.
A dusty brown sedan roared suddenly into view and Starsky threw himself out of the way, rolling across the sidewalk and managing to land on his feet. With a shout, Hutch raced back to the Torino, slammed the door, and gunned the powerful car into a tight U-turn. He slowed just long enough for Starsky to dive into the passenger seat, then hit the gas.
Abruptly, the truck was just there, lumbering out of the side street directly into their path. Hutch hauled the wheel sharply to the left, but there wasn't enough room. He jammed the brakes to the floor and threw the car into low, but time ran out, and the Torino came to a thudding halt, the front bumper wrapped around a lamp-post, the screaming siren replaced by the ominous scrunch of torn metal and the crack of breaking glass.
Hutch was out almost immediately. He hit the ground running, the Magnum in his hand, pointed uselessly at the tail of the sedan as it disappeared into traffic. "Shit!" He slammed a fist against his thigh and jammed his big gun back into its holster. He looked around for Starsky, but his partner wasn't there. "No," he breathed, fear a sudden fire in his belly as he turned and raced back toward the wrecked Torino.
A crowd was already gathering and Hutch pushed his way through to find Starsky standing in on the curb, staring balefully at the smashed fender and crumpled grille work. Hutch gave an unconscious sigh of relief, then walked over slowly to join him. "They got away." He kicked suddenly at a tire, frustration and adrenaline building to a pounding pressure at the back of his head He looked up to see Starsky glaring at him.
"Get away from my car," Starsky said through clenched teeth.
"I said, get the hell away from my car. What's the matter, you didn't do enough damage already?"
Hutch's already shaky control snapped completely. "What the fuck is wrong you anyway? All you can think about is this damned car. Those creeps got away."
"The way you drive, that doesn't surprise me."
"Hey, partner, I've about had it with YOU! "Hutch yelled. "I don't know what the hell's eating you, but it's time to grow up. Only little boys play with shiny red cars; you're supposed to be a cop, dammit--o
"Shut your goddammed mouth," Starsky yelled back, both of them ignoring the watching crowd and the two uniformed men pushing their way through the jostling humanity. "Just shut up! I don't need any lectures from you! I've had enough lectures lately to last me a fucking lifetime!"
"Maybe you should start listening, so you don't act like such an asshole. I thought you got hurt, for chrissake. who gives a damn about a few scratches on a fender?"
Apparently Starsky did. He reached out, grabbed Hutch by the jacket with one hand and smashed his other fist into his jaw. Even through his own pain, Hutch was aware of the sudden look of stunned anguish that crossed his friend's face. But before either of them could speak, maybe put an end to this while there was still time, Starsky swiveled away. He checked the car quickly, saw that the tire was free and it was drivable. "You want a report," he said to the traffic cop, "it'll be at the station." With that, he threw himself into the front seat of the Torino, started it with a grating scream, and then backed up. Some in the crowd cheered as he roared down the street.
Hutch still lay propped on the sidewalk, one hand clamped to his jaw. The traffic guy walked toward him, holding out a helping hand, but Hutch ignored it and pushed himself stiffly to his feet. He leaned against the lamp-post for a minute while the world steadied around him, then gingerly moved his jaw. Everything seemed to be working, although it hurt like hell, so probably there were no broken bones. That fact didn't make it hurt any the less. He turned to look in the direction Starsky had gone, bewilderment competing with anger and pain.
What the hell was going on here?
He tightened his grip on the sturdy post, fighting off something that he refused to call fear, something that seemed to be trying to curl itself around his insides and make it hard for him to breathe.
The street had been cleared, except for the two zone cars and five cops. Hutch straightened slowly, not liking the half-smothered smiles on the other faces. They were enjoying the show. He bent down, ignoring the sudden vertigo, and with great deliberation, dusted his slacks. His voice, when he trusted himself to use it, was steel. "Tore my goddammed slacks", he said. The smiles faded, but probably not for long. The chance to spread the word about a fight between the Dynamic Duo was just too good to pass up.
"Sergeant, you want us to stop by the hospital? Have somebody look at that jaw?"
"No, I do not want to stop by the hospital," Hutch said icily. "All I want is for a couple of you gentlemen to give me a ride over to Metro."
"Oh, sure thing, Sergeant. Our pleasure."
* * *
Hutch walked slowly across the parking lot toward the battered Ford. At least, Merle had come through, and delivered it on time--a first in automotive history--and the first thing that had gone right in the misbegotten day. He'd been planning to just leave it here and have Starsky drop him back for it after the concert.
Hutch unlocked the door and slumped into the front seat. One hundred fucking dollars to the scalper because Starsky kept bitching about the concert being sold out. So much for Springsteen. Some great birthday surprise. "Surprise on me, " Hutch mumbled.
He rubbed a hand across his sore jaw. It was starting to swell, despite the ice pack he'd put on it in the squadroom, and by morning would probably be a terrific shade of black and blue. The headache that went with it had spread down his neck to both shoulders, turning the tendons into knots. He rubbed at the tense muscles. It didn't help. Starsky, he of the magic hands, could give a terrific massage.
"Hell." Hutch folded his arms across the steering wheel, resting his head on them for a moment, too dispirited to face the long drive home. It was too late to go to the concert, even if he wanted to which he didn't, but sitting in the parking lot all night wasn't going to solve anything either. With a sigh, he sat up and started the car.
Hutch's anger at the crash scene had faded by the time the squad car dropped him at the station. He'd really expected Starsky to be waiting with an abject little boy-style apology, and in honor of his partner's birthday, he'd even magnanimously decided to accept it.
Starsky's refusal over the past two weeks to discuss whatever it was that had been eating at him had troubled Hutch even more than he wanted to admit. He reluctantly acknowledged to himself that if it took getting publicly punched in the jaw to finally bring these things out into the open, it would have been worth the pain and the humiliation. With the air between cleared, they could talk. He wanted his best friend back.
So he'd walked into the squadroom, ignoring the whispered comments that trailed in his wake. To find what? That Starsky had already signed out for the day and wasn't expected back until the weekend was over.
His first reaction was to put his fist through the nearest wall, but gradually concern edged out anger--concern and confusion. He lingered at his desk longer than necessary, hoping that Starsky was just embarrassed over what had happened and would drive around for a while to cool off and then come back to get him for their night out. By seven, when there was still no sign of the man, Hutch swallowed his pride and called Starsky's apartment. No answer.
Losing hope fast, he tried The Pits. Yeah, Huggy said, the Dark Side of the Force had been in, silently downed two beers and glowered at the other customers before taking off again.
"And none too soon, "Huggy added. "Havin' a volcano about to e-rupt at the bar is not exactly stim-u-latin' for trade, if you know what I mean."
"Yeah, I know," Hutch said now, in the darkness, but the night didn't respond. "Aw, hell, partner. Why won't you talk to me?" He rubbed his hand across his jaw again, realizing that his stomach was tied in knots. Twice before, Starsky had slugged him like that. Once in the line of duty, as they set up a cover for the vigilante committee. And then the other time, the time it really hurt. When Starsky found him at Kira's. God, he'd almost blown it that time. What had started as a perverse sort of game had almost ... Now, Hutch could hardly remember what she looked like.
But they had worked through that. The way they'd worked through everything for years and years. Kira was behind them. But what was ahead? What was tearing them apart?
The tendrils of fear were back and the night had become almost unbearably lonely. Hutch felt tired and confused and shut out; all he wanted to do was see his partner and get this fucked-up mess straightened out. He flipped the turn signal and made an abrupt left, narrowly missing two cabs and a pedestrian with a dog, and headed back toward Starsky's.
When he got there, the windows were dark and the Torino's usual parking spot was empty. Hutch climbed out of the car and stared up at the apartment. It was time to go home, but the need to talk to Starsky, to see him, was a physical ache in his gut that drew him toward the building like a magnet.
He took the key from over the door and shoved it into the lock. Inside, the telephone started to ring. He paused, listening to it drone on and on, reverberating in the emptiness, and Hutch realized he was shaking. Leaning against the door, he closed his eyes in defeat. He didn't understand his sudden reluctance to enter the empty apartment. All he did know was that he couldn't bear to face the deserted room and pick up the phone to tell whoever it was on the other end that Starsky wasn't there.
Hutch stood by the door until the phone finally stopped ringing. Then he replaced the key and left.
* * *
Starsky sighed and resisted the nearly overwhelming urge to throw the telephone against the wall. It was too early for this. "Dammit, Nicky, " he said again. "It's not like you have any kind of responsibilities tying you down."
"Not like you, huh?"
"At least I have a job, dammit. And ... and everything. I can't just toss it all over just like that."
"Well, I have a life, too, you know. Sure, I'm not a bigshot cop, but--"
"Nick," Starsky said more loudly than he'd intended, "Nick, dammit, can't you at least hold down the fort for a while, until I can get things under control here?"
"Yeah? And how long will that take? Man, I've got deals cookin' that--"
Starsky hung up the phone. He didn't even slam it down, just simply and very quietly replaced the receiver, cutting off the whining of his brother's voice. "Damn." he whispered, "Oh, damn, what am I supposed to do?"
The knock at the door startled him. He went to open it and found his partner standing there. When was the last time Hutch had actually knocked at his door, instead of just coming on in? The insignificant thought hurt.
"Come in," he said, walking away and picking up the cup of now-cold coffee that Nick's phone call had interrupted.
Hutch helped himself to some of the oj and sprawled across the couch. "Happy birthday," he said.
Hutch was holding on to the tumbler with both hands. "Hey, man, about yesterday--"
Starsky stared at Hutch's bruised and swollen face, feeling a terrible shaking inside his gut. If he let go, showed what he really felt, then he would be lost totally and absolutely. So he shrugged. "Yeah, well," he muttered. "Don't worry about it. I'll have Merle send the bill to you."
"What?" Hutch blinked. "I ... what did you say?"
Starsky couldn't stand the guilt that was ripping away at his insides, so he took the emotion and turned it around, perverting it into anger. "I said, you'll be getting a bill for the damage to my car."
"Your car, "Hutch said very softly. "Oh. Yeah." He took a long swallow of the juice. "Your car," he said again. Then he set the glass down and struggled to his feet. "When you send the bill," he said, taking a narrow envelope out of his pocket, "why don't you just deduct a hundred bucks for these?"
Hutch's tone turned clipped and cold. "These, buddy boy, are two third row tickets for that frigging Springsteen concert last night. They were supposed to be your birthday present. A surprise." He gave a harsh, hurting laugh. "Well, the surprise was on me, wasn't it?" With a savage gesture, he ripped the tickets in half, then tossed the pieces on to the table. "Happy fucking birthday, lover."
Starsky turned away, hiding his face from Hutch. "You shoulda told me."
"Before or after you knocked me down? By the way, you missed a lot by taking off so fast. The traffic guys got a good laugh out of it."
"Dammit, Starsky, can't we just talk?"
Starsky rubbed the back of his neck, feeling as if he'd already had enough talk for one day. Too much. Once started, there would be no stopping and then he'd have to say the words that he didn't want to.
How do you say goodbye to half of yourself?
"I don't have anything to say."
There was something about Hutch's voice that made Starsky turn around to face him again. His partner was just looking at him, the pale blue eyes showing a naked vulnerability that was like a knife piercing Starsky's core. As they stared at one another, he saw an unfamiliar curtain fall over Hutch's eyes. In another moment, the taller man shrugged. "Okay. To hell with it."
He was gone before Starsky could speak.
Alone, Starsky sank to the floor beside the table. He picked up the torn tickets and held them between his fingers, feeling like somebody had done the same thing to his heart.
The phone began to ring again. Starsky sighed, knowing it would be Nick again. Or Aunt Rose. Or somebody intent upon fucking up his life. Outside he heard the old LTD start up and drive away. At last, he reached for the phone.
* * *
Realistically, Hutch knew that the Monday morning tour hadn't lasted twenty-four hours. Just felt like it. He rubbed a hand across the back of his neck and straightened in the seat. Maybe the last two weeks had been bad, but this morning was making them feel like a vacation.
He glanced sidewise at his partner. Starsky looked like hell. His eyes were bloodshot and the job he'd done shaving himself that morning might as well have been left undone.
The crackle of the radio interrupted his dismal thoughts. "All cars vicinity of Monroe and 12th. Shots fired."
Hutch reached for the mic. "Zebra-3 responding. Is a zone car en route?"
"Tell them we're coming. And that we're in plainclothes." He replaced the mic and stuck the bubblegum machine on top as Starsky spun the car in a quick U-turn.
"That's the old paint factory," Starsky said.
"U-huh. Swing around onto eleventh and drop me. I'll go in through the back and you hit the front."
It was their longest conversation of the day.
Hutch already had his gun in his hand when Starsky slowed the car for him to jump out. He slammed the door shut and sent his partner off with a half-wave.
Moving swiftly, he flattened himself against the building and edged toward the door. He could hear voices inside, but couldn't make out what they were saying. The sound of gunfire was unmistakable, however. He gave Starsky a moment to get into position, then kicked the door open and jumped in, dodging for cover behind a stack of barrels. "Police!" he yelled. "Throw down your guns and come out."
The answer was unequivocal--and lethal. Hutch kept his head down as a rifle spit death in his direction. Bullets ricocheted off the concrete just above him. The guy behind the rifle was good--too good for Hutch to stay where he was. He had started to gather himself for a dash to better cover when finally the front door crashed open and a familiar voice echoed in the building "Drop it! You're surround--"
Starsky's voice was cut off by another burst of fire from the rifle. Hutch felt his heart leap in his throat. He pushed aside the protecting barrels and came out firing. The old warehouse reverberated with the sound of gunfire, confusing and deafening the blond detective as he dived for cover behind a pile of cartons. Hutch strained to see through the murky light, trying to spot a flash from the rifle, something, anything to give him a target.
He pushed damp blond hair back out of his eyes. It was now too quiet. Rolling back against the cartons, he listened for some sign of movement that would tell him where his partner was, but he he'd heard nothing from Starsky since that first shout. He pushed the gnawing fear to the back of his mind. If he thought about it now, he'd never be able to move, and if Starsky was hurt, he'd be counting on his partner to get them both out of here.
Hutch eased into a half-crouch. Sitting here on his ass wasn't helping any. He had to find out where that damned rifle was, and the easiest way to do that--also the most dangerous, of course--was simply to draw its fire. He started to move and then heard something whisper inside the old office. "Starsk?" he called softly, but his only answer was the ominous retort of the rifle.
The echoes crashed around him, but this time he had a direction. Lunging across the open space between the aisles, he ran toward the office. A bullet clanged off a pipe over his head and he threw himself into the shadows. One last headlong dash and he was through the door, his breath coming in raspy gasps.
The tension left him in a rush when he saw that Starsky was already there. The curly-haired detective had his Baretta jammed against the neck of a tall, skinny man in jeans and a dirty red teeshirt. The rifle lay on the floor by his feet.
Hutch straightened slowly, his eyes registering Starsky's apparently undamaged condition. "You okay?"
Their eyes met and for that moment, that infinity, everything was all right. They were together and they were both alive and they had each other. "Yeah," Starsky said softly. "Sorry it took me so damn long to get in here. The door was locked and I hadda throw myself against it five or six times. I was going outta my skull."
Hutch grinned at him. "S'okay. You made it. I can always hang in there a little longer when I know you're on the way."
The change happened as Hutch watched. He saw the light go out of his partner's eyes and the face turn a little pale. "You better check the guy by the desk," he said. "And call in the uniforms." His voice was a stranger's voice again.
Without saying anything, Hutch knelt briefly by the body of an older man in a security guard's uniform. The pulse was strong, if a little rapid. "He's alive," he said flatly, scrambling back to his feet. Starsky had the shooter cuffed. Situation under control. Hutch jammed the magnum back into the holster as he hurried out, refusing to acknowledge the fact that the hand that held the gun was shaking. Or that he was aching for more--a touch, a word, even just more of that soft look, something that could break through the left-over fear and tension that were making him feel as if his skin were on too tight.
But there was nothing and the saddest part was that he hadn't really expected that there would be.
Their shift had been over officially for more than an hour by the time Hutch stuck the last report form into his typewriter. He glanced up and saw Starsky was finishing as well. "Hey, buddy," he wanted to say, "how about we grab a pizza after? Maybe go bowl a couple of frames? Have some beers? How about if we just talk for chrissake?" But a glance at Starsky's pale, sharp profile kept him silent.
When Starsky got up to check something in the file cabinet, Hutch noticed the paper cup of Dr. Pepper sitting on his partner's desk. Checking to be sure Starsky's attention was elsewhere, Hutch rose in his chair and reached across the desk. He picked up the cup and moved it just a little, positioning it care fully at the end of the typewriter. Resuming his seat, he saw the other detectives in the room watching him. He grinned and motioned silence.
Starsky, his head bent over the file, came back and sat down, mumbling to himself. He typed quickly for a moment, hit the carriage return, and the black cylinder flipped back, hitting precisely where Hutch had known it would. The cup of soda tipped and then fell, spilling its contents directly into Starsky's lap.
"Dammit!" Starsky jumped to his feet, one hand wiping uselessly at the sticky brown liquid as the rest of the room exploded into laughter. He looked up, his gaze landing first of all on Hutch, who was laughing as hard as everyone else.
It took another moment for complete realization to reach his eyes. Starsky's lips thinned and without a word, he turned and walked out of the room.
Hutch watched him go, the laughter dying on his lips. My god, he thought, my god, what did I do? His stomach lurched as he realized how badly he'd misread the whole situation. The last look he'd seen on Starsky's face kept echoing over and over in his mind, trailing rivulets of doom behind it.
Hutch stood abruptly and left the squadroom.
He found Starsky in the john, standing in front of the sink, trying to dry himself with a handful of paper towels. It was a fairly hopeless task. He didn't look up as Hutch entered.
"Hey, man," Hutch said awkwardly. "I'm sorry."
Starsky threw the wadded towels away and began to wash his hands.
"It was just supposed to be a joke, you know."
Starsky dried his hands. "Tell Dobey I'll finish the report next time," he said. His voice was distant.
It scared Hutch to look into Starsky's face. It looked like unfeeling marble and the eyes were just dead holes. "Starsk?" He started to touch his partner, but let his hand fall by his side. "I never meant ... " His words dwindled off.
"Never mind. It doesn't matter. It's okay." Starsky turned and walked out.
Hutch stood there and watched him go. It was all wrong. Everything. He didn't know why and he didn't know what to do about it. He leaned against the wall, staring silently at the closed door. He was shaking again and this time he knew why. Ken Hutchinson was scared.
By the next morning, Hutch had decided that the whole thing was ridiculous. Everything had just gotten blown all out of proportion. God, he and Starsk were partners and more than that. They loved each other fiercely. It had taken a whole sleepless night of thought to realize just how deep and how fierce that love was. It was too good to give up. He wouldn't go down without the biggest fucking fight of his life.
He walked into the squadroom, keyed up and prepared to make Starsky listen even if it meant cuffing him to the damned desk, but Starsky wasn't there. "Dammit, buddy," Hutch muttered under his breath, "You would pick today to be late, wouldn't you?"
Irritated in spite of himself, Hutch threw his jacket over the back of the chair and walked over to the coffee maker in the corner. The pot was empty and a sticker pasted across the front proclaimed it "Out of Order."
"Shit. "He thought about throwing the damned thing against the wall. Instead, muttering obscenities to himself, he stalked into the hallway to the machine. Minnie was ahead of him, leaning against the machine and sipping from a foam cup. "Talking to yourself so early in the morning, darling?"
"Hell, I might as well talk to myself." Hutch dropped some coins into, slot and pushed the button marked black. "That idiot partner of mine isn't here to listen."
"You missing Starsky already?"
"Missing him?" Hutch tasted the coffee and made a face. As bad as usual. "Why should I be missing him? I just want to tell him what a jerk he is."
Minnie looked puzzled. "You're being a mite hard on him, aren't you?"
"What could he do? He really didn't have a choice. He had to go home to New York."
Hutch nearly choked on the mouthful of coffee. "What?"
Minnie shrugged. "When your mother needs you ... "
He shook his head a little. "Minnie, are you telling me that Starsk is going to New York?"
"Already gone, honey. Caught the redeye. You didn't know?"
"Oh, I'm sorry, Hutch, "she said. "I just assumed ..."
"Yeah. Well, it looks like a lot of us have been assuming wrong lately." He dumped the rest of the coffee into the trash and headed for Dobey's office.
* * *
Starsky settled the tray carefully in his mother's lap, then went back to the kitchen for the bowl of soup. Rachel was watching his every move, still glowing with obvious pleasure at the unexpected presence of her elder son.
"David, " she called after him. "You don't have to baby me like this. I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself. No matter what your Aunt Rose says."
"Hey." Starsky came back from the kitchen and settled the soup gingerly on the tray. "I'm enjoying myself. It's not every day I get to serve lunch to a beautiful lady."
Starsky laughed softly. "You kidding? I usually chow down with a big blond blintz. Fast food in the front seat of my car, or his car, which is even worse." He clamped down on that line of thought.
Rachel didn't seem to notice his change of mood. She smiled and patted the couch. "So okay already. The hired help can at least sit with the customer, yes? Sit, keep me company. You've been pacing ever since you got here and it's making me tired."
Trying to grin again, Starsky eased down next to her, noticing how happiness lent color to his mother's pale skin. She brushed the fingers of one hand against his face in a brief caress. "Oh, David, it makes me feel so good to have you here for a while. And such a surprise. But why didn't you tell me?"
"Because I wanted it to be a surprise, that's why." He leaned over and kissed her cheek, determined to push everything else to the back of his mind. The late afternoon sun slanted in the window, casting a harsh shaft of light over the couch, stabbing him in the eyes. Starsky walked to the window and pulled down the shade. Shadow suited his mood better than light anyway.
He walked back to the couch. His whole being felt strangely numb. Everything had happened so fast--the final phone call from Nicky, his decision to fly to New York. Everything was moving with supersonic speed toward an ending. Eight years of partnership ... friendship .... all that time of love. Again, he pushed the thoughts away. There was no place in his life for that kind of thing anymore. He had responsibilities. Be the man, just like everyone had told him when his father died. Take care of your Mama.
She looks old, he realized with a sudden tug of fear, noticing the drawn lines around her mouth, the pale blue circles under her eyes. He couldn't remember her looking old before, not even the previous year in the hospital.
"Davey? What is it? What's the matter?"
"Nothing, Ma. Just thinking."
"Well, don't think gloomy thoughts. Let's just enjoy your visit. Speaking of that, so I can be prepared, how long are you here for?"
"As long as we want. A few weeks, I guess."
She looked over at him in surprise. "A few weeks? I didn't think Ken could manage so long without you."
"Hutch can get along fine without me," Starsky snapped, then he jumped up to cover the moment. "Forgot your napkin." He hurried into the kitchen again, taking a moment there to steady himself, before going back. He placed the napkin on the tray with a flourish. "Wouldn't make a very good waiter, I guess."
"That's because you're a cop." Rachel took his hand and pulled him back down beside her. "David, from the time you were a little boy, you could never lie to your mother. Something is bothering you. Tell me. Is something wrong with Ken?"
Why did she keep talking about him. Starsky killed the small burst of anger. "Ma, there's nothing wrong except that I've been worrying about you. You're supposed to be taking it easier, not working fifty hours a week at the dress shop. You know what the doctor said."
"The doctor is mashuguna," Rachel declared, distracted--much to Starsky's relief--from her earlier question. "A crazy person. Always telling me what I can't do."
"So I worked a little overtime. So what's so terrible?"
"What's so terrible is that a little overtime last year gave you a heart attack. You trying now for an instant replay?"
"I got a little tired, is all. A big fuss everybody is making over nothing. Three days in the hospital." She sipped a spoonful of the soup, then made a face, and put the spoon down with a clunk. "You cook like your Aunt Rose. No salt. Who can eat chicken without salt?"
"You can, that's who. The doctor said ..."
"Quit with the doctor already. Don't aggravate your mother while she's eating." She grimaced, but sipped some more of the soup.
Starsky laughed and leaned back against the couch. But the smile faded as realized held just been outmaneuvered. "Ma, why were you working all that overtime?"
Suddenly intent on the soup, she seemed not to hear.
He touched her arm lightly. "If it was money, you should've told me. I coulda sent some, you know that."
Rachel put the spoon down again. "A mother doesn't like to be a sponge on her children."
"Even if one of them is sponging off of her?"
"David, don't start on Nicky. He's a good boy."
"He's not a boy, he's a man. It's time he ..." His voice trailed off as a sudden thought struck him. "The money was for Nick, wasn't it?"
She reached for the spoon once more, but Starsky gently grabbed her hand and turned her to face him. "It was for Nicky, wasn't it?"
Rachel sighed, her face clouding over. "David, you don't understand. Nicky, he's a good boy, but he has such dreams. Sometimes the dreams get a little away from him. He doesn't mean it to happen, it just does."
Starsky got up and perched on the coffee table in front of the couch. He leaned over and rested both elbows on his knees. His voice was tired. "Yeah. I know. Ma, why'd Nicky need the money this time?"
She slipped the tray from her lap, onto the table, and leaned back, looking even older than before. "He had an opportunity ... David," she said urgently, as he jumped to his feet, almost knocking the tray to the floor. "It was my idea to work the overtime. Nicky didn't suggest it."
"But he let you do it," Starsky said angrily. He began to pace again. "This whole mess is his fault. How could he let you?"
"How could he not let his mother help? What else is a mother to do?" She held out a hand. "Come. Sit. Let me tell you something."
Starsky walked back to the couch.
"Sit," his mother ordered, and he slumped down against the cushions.
"Do you know why I sent you away after your Papa died?"
He was staring at the faded cabbage roses on the wallpaper. "Because I was a pain."
"You don't really think that, David."
"The real reason was you were so much like him at I was afraid if you stayed here, where all his friends were, all his friends the policemen, you'd grow up and want to be like he was. A hero cop. So I thought that maybe if I sent you to Al and Rose it would be different."
"So I could become a hero used car dealer?" He said the words with a smile although his chest was aching.
"Smart mouth. Anyway, look where such smart thinking got me with you. My son, the hero cop. And in case I never told you, I'm very proud. And so would your papa be."
Starsky looked at her and placed his free hand over hers, realizing with a start how frail her hand felt. His mouth twisted into a shadow of a rueful grin and Rachel smiled back, but the smile didn't hold long against the sadness in her eyes.
"So now about Nicky." Slipping her hand out of his, she reached for the napkin and twisted it in her fingers. "Nicky was just a baby, six, almost seven. He doesn't even remember his father so good. Him, I couldn't send away, but it was different anyway. He wasn't interested in being a policeman. He made his own friends and none of them were cops or sons of cops. I used to think that was good. But now ... now I think that Nicky is going to be something worse. David," she said, voice dropping so low that he had to strain to hear, "I get so scared for him sometimes. The people he brings home. Oh, they are very polite and nice-talking, but they're cold somehow. Deep inside, they're cold. And I see Nicky becoming cold too. And it scares me."
"No, almost done," she said quickly. "So. Nicky comes home one day and says, all excited, that he has his chance to go south to Florida and open a business of his own. Maybe this would be the chance he needs, to get away, to make something good of himself. Like his brother. So I worked a little overtime. How could I not give my son his chance?"
"I understand," Starsky said wearily. He did understand everything now, much too clearly. "Ma, I was saving this for a surprise, but now is a good time to tell you. I'm gonna quite the department and move back here."
Her face did not light up as he'd expected. "Because of me?"
He shook his head. "No. Because of me. I'm just tired, Ma. It ain't an easy way to make a buck. We can all relax a little now." He wasn't looking at her; she could read lies in his face and this was one time he had to convince her that what he was saying was true.
"Are you sure?"
Starsky willed his hands and voice to steady. "Hey, I thought you'd be happy."
"Happy? Of course I am."
He turned at the sound of tears and knelt in front of her. "Time I came home, Ma."
She took his face in both hands. "And what about Ken? He means so much to you."
"Hutch is a big boy. He can get along without me." The question is, can I get along without him?
"You've discussed this with him?"
"Sure." Starsky lied over the lump in his throat. "Hutch understands. He can get a new partner. It's gonna work out."
Although his mother's eyes were bright, her expression was still tinged with uncertainty. "Davey..."
The ringing of the telephone shattered the moment and Starsky jumped to answer it, glad to avoid more questions, questions that he wasn't sure he could answer. "'Lo."
"Starsk?" The voice sounded oddly hesitant. "Starsky, I just found out about your mother. Being sick again. How is she?"
Starsky's knuckles turned white on the receiver and he turned away from his mother's gaze, unable for a moment to answer the accusingly familiar voice on the other end of the very long line.
"Starsk? You there, buddy?"
"Yeah, " he managed finally, wondering at how normal his voice sounded. "She's better, thanks."
"David, who is it?"
He took a deep breath and faced her. "Hutch. Wants to know how you're feeling."
"Tell him I'm fine, and that I'm being smothered by my family, and tell him that I expect him to come visit us when you get all moved."
"Yeah," Starsky said slowly. "I'll tell him." He swiveled away once more, fixing his eyes on the wall, and refusing to give into the sudden urge to cry. "Mom says hi," he said before his voice threatened to break and he fell silent.
He could hear Hutch draw a deep, uneven breath, and beyond that the faint sound of classical music in the background. He glanced at his watch. What the hell was Hutch doing at home this time of day? But then he realized that it wasn't his place to wonder about that anymore. The thought cut into his gut like a dull blade.
"Starsk," Hutch said in that same hesitant voice. "Why didn't you tell me what was going on? I mean, the way I've been riding you ... I just didn't understand. But you should've told me."
"Yeah," Starsky said softly, aware of his mother's attentive gaze, "I should have, I guess."
"Yeah, well, that's in the past," Hutch said quietly. "If there's anything I can do, or ... hell, what I'm trying to say is, I'm sorry for the way I acted or maybe reacted. But ... oh, hell, buddy, I'm sorry, that's all."
"Yeah, well, it's okay."
"I got your car fixed," Hutch said quickly. "Actually, I dropped it off at Merle's this morning, but it'll be ready when you get home. I could probably even be persuaded to drive it to the airport to pick you up. After all, I owe you a couple of beers for your birthday. Just let me know when and I'll--"
"Hutch," Starsky broke in, needing to get the words said before they burned clear through his heart. "I told Ma I'm quitting the department and moving back here."
There was an endless silence, then an agonized whisper. "What? Starsky, you can't just ... " His voice died abruptly.
"I'll ... I'll make all the arrangements from here about packing up my stuff and having the car sent or whatever. Thanks for getting it to Merle."
"Yeah sure. Oh, god, David." Hutch's voice cracked and there was a moment of silence. "I, uh, I'd better get back to work. Dobey gave me the morning off, but ... If there's anything I can do ..."
"No." Nothing anybody can do. "But thanks."
"Yeah, well. Give my love to your mother."
"And to you. You know that, don't you?"
"You gonna call Dobey or should I ... "
"I'll call him."
A pause. Hutch seemed to be waiting for something, but Starsky couldn't give it to him, couldn't say the words, or he would fold.
"I guess that's it then." The words were quiet.
"Yeah. I guess." Starsky tried not to shiver in the too-warm room. "Hutch--?"
"I ... " But there was nothing to say after all. "Just ... goodbye."
Starsky heard what sounded like a choked off sob. His breath contracted to match it, everything in him longing to yell, "No, wait, I can't do this, I can't "But the memory of his mother's face, the sad and hopeful expression, kept intruding. Oh, god, Hutch, he thought, She's my mother. The words screamed through his mind so loudly that for one moment, he was afraid he'd said them aloud. But all that was left around him was silence--silence, coldness, the rough sound of his own ragged breathing and a whispered, "'Bye, Starsk," as Hutch hung up.
* * *
Starsky rummaged through the refrigerator, more for something to do than out of hunger. His stomach was tied in knots, had been for what seemed like years, and he wondered if he'd ever really feel hunger again. Hunger, or happiness, anything other than the numb coldness that filled him now.
He wiped a hand down his face, glanced at the clock on the kitchen wall. Three a.m. He'd gone to bed hours ago, but couldn't sleep, couldn't even close his eyes. Four times since then held started for the phone to call Hutch. Four times he stopped. There was nothing left to say. No magic words that could make it better. His mother needed him. And there was no way to make good-bye any better.
He looked around the kitchen slowly. Home. "Home." He said the word out loud, softly trying out the sound. But the only response was a lurching in his stomach, that he tried to blame on Aunt Rose's cooking.
Taking a deep breath, he reached for a package of corned beef, and threw it on the counter. He pulled a Kaiser roll out of the bread drawer, grabbed for a knife to slice it and managed to slice his hand instead. Starsky examined the thin of blood almost clinically. The cut wasn't deep and the stinging pain couldn't even begin to compare with the greater hurt that seemed to fill his entire being. He walked to the sink, ran some cold water over his hand, and dried it on a dish-towel.
Eat something, you'll feel better, he told himself in a weak imitation of Aunt Rose. He made the sandwich, slapped it onto a plate, and took it to the table. Eat something, you'll feel better. How many times had he heard that as a kid? Jesus, he thought, it's a wonder I don't weigh three hundred pounds. He slumped in the chair, staring at the sandwich. I don't think it's gonna work this time either, Aunt Rose.
The small lightbulb over the sink barely illuminated the chair where he was sitting and did nothing at all to chase the early morning gloom from the corners of the usually friendly kitchen. Or from the corners of the weary man's soul.
Starsky picked up the sandwich, then put it down again. It was no use. All the food in the world wouldn't help this time. Everything was over. Being a cop. Having Hutch as a partner. Hutch was gone, lost to him as completely as if one of the street punks had finally managed to win. The life ahead seemed as dark and empty as the unlit corners of the room. Starsky shoved the plate aside and folded both arms on the table. Suddenly no longer able to even pretend, he pillowed his head on his arms and sobbed.
The woman in the doorway stood there motionless, the light faintly picking, out the faded flowers on the robe she wore. Rachel reached out a hand toward her son, then let it fall back to her side before she turned and walked silently back to her room.
Until she was there, she could still hear the harsh echo of the man's sobs.
* * *
The sound of the phone cut shrilly through the pre-dawn quiet. Groggily, Hutch reached across the bed and fumbled for the receiver. He hadn't been asleep very long. His life was dissolving around him, but he was powerless to do anything about it, and he'd spent most of the night tossing and turning, his mood one of bitter impotence.
The phone rang again and this time he managed to knock the receiver from the cradle and pulled the cord to drag it into reach. "'Lo?" he mumbled thickly.
The voice didn't click in his mind. "Yeah? Who's this?"
"Ken, this is Rachel Starsky."
That brought him sharply awake. "Rach ... what's wrong? Something happen to Starsk?"
"No, no, Ken, he's fine. I just sent him out to the drugstore."
Hutch relaxed back against the pillow with a sigh.
Rachel made an impatient sound. "Darn, I woke you up didn't I? I forgot about the time difference."
"That's okay. Uh, what's up?"
"I need your help. It's about David."
"I don't understand. You said he's fine."
"Let me try to explain. You know my son better than anyone."
Do I? Maybe once upon a time I thought so, but now ... now I think the whole world has turned upside down and I don't know anything anymore.
"Yeah?" he said non-committedly.
"Why is he making this move?"
"Didn't Starsk tell you that?"
"Oh, he gave me reasons," Rachel said. "Like a good son would. But was he telling me the whole truth?"
Hutch took a deep breath, not sure what the hell he was supposed to say. "He's been worried about you," he began carefully.
"I know that. But I also know that he has a life out there that means very much. His work, his friends, you."
Me? Oh, yeah, me. His partner. I sure mean a helluva lot to him, don't I? Likes to have me around to hit every so often.
Rachel seemed to take his silence as some kind of response. "Has something happened out there?"
"What do you mean?" Hutch hedged.
She sighed. "Ken, I want to know if my son is making this move because he really wants to or because he feels like there's nothing left for him back there."
Her words struck Hutch like karate chops to the gut. Jesus, Starsk... is that it? Omigod, what have we done? What have I done? He thought back over the days before Starsky's departure--flight--from L.A. Because that's what it was, Hutch realized suddenly. Starsky was running away from here as much as he was running to his mother. Because of what happened between us. The guy is going through hell and takes it out on the one person he knows will understand and what happens? I pull that asshole stunt with the Dr. Pepper. Jesus, some understanding. My partner's begging for help and I screw everything up. God, how could I have read it all so wrong? He was acting like an ass, so I did too.
"Ken, are you still there?"
"Oh yeah, sure," Hutch said absently, his thoughts whirling furiously as he tried to think of what to say. How could he tell this woman that her son didn't really want to stay with her? Oh, part of it was that. But a larger part was that her beloved David felt abandoned and betrayed by the one person in the whole damned universe he trusted completely and so now he felt that the safest place to be was home. Or at least the place that used to be home and that he could pretend still was. Hutch closed his eyes as he finally understood some of the anguish that Starsky had been going through during his last days in L.A. His heart ached for the man.
He cleared his throat, feeling the last remnants of his world crumble around him. "There's no problem out here, Rachel," he said at last. "He's been thinking about making a move like this for a long time. You know the kind of hell we see on this job. I think he's just had enough. Who could blame him?" Hutch opened his eyes and let his gaze roam restlessly around the room, pausing on the holster and gun hanging by the bed. "We all get tired. I'm tired too."
"So there's no problem between you two?"
"Of course not. Starsk is ... he's my best friend. I love the guy and when you love somebody you want what's right for him. This is." The lie came easily to his lips, despite the pain of saying it, despite the lump of ice in his stomach. He had already let Starsky down once, but this one final act of friendship and love he would do right. Even if it killed him.
And that was it. Somehow he managed to finish the conversation, thinking that even to his own ears his words sounded strong and cheerful. They said good-bye last, with him promising to come and visit soon. It was a promise he knew would never be kept.
When the call was over, he carefully replaced the receiver and slid back down in the bed, pulling the sheet up to his chin in a feeble attempt to fight the chill that enveloped him as the room warmed in the coming light.
* * *
Rachel was still sitting by the phone when her son came in. There was a smile of determined cheerfulness on his face, a smile that suddenly seemed as phony as the words his partner had been saying over the long distance wire. In spite of what the two men had told her, there was something very wrong. The naked sadness in Starsky's blue eyes belied the insistent grin on his lips.
She stayed silent as he put away the purchases and fixed them both some hot tea, and it wasn't until he was next to her on the couch that she finally spoke. "David, what about all of your things in Los Angeles? When will you go to pick them up?"
He shrugged. "Oh, hell, I'll just get somebody to pack it all up and ship it."
But she shook her head. "Don't swear around your mother. Besides, I don't think that's such a good idea. What would you do about your car?"
He sank more deeply into the cushions. "Oh, I don't know. Probably sell it. A car in the city's too much hassle." The same grin stretched his mouth, but still didn't reach his eyes. "Maybe Hutch would like to buy it." Starsky seemed to expect her to laugh, but she didn't and in a moment, the grin faded.
She saw it in his eyes. So plain; how could she have missed it before? Just saying his partner's name and the look in those deep blue pools was like that of a man slowly dying. Maybe Rachel Starsky could not understand the depth of her son's feelings for someone who was not family, but she could recognize the hurt he was feeling now.
She leaned forward to set the cup down. "I don't like the idea of someone else taking care of all that. Who? Hutch? He's busy enough."
"Not Hutch." The words were soft. "He couldn't... " Then her son looked up sharply. "So?"
"I think you should fly out there. Tomorrow. Take care of your life yourself. Don't trust decisions like this to others."
"Don't argue with your mother. Save that for Aunt Rose. Your cousin Sheila wants to visit. I'll be fine."
Starsky opened his mouth as if to argue, then he just shrugged. "Okay, Ma, I'll go. But I'll be back soon."
She reached out to smooth his unruly curls. "You'll do what is best, Davey."
* * *
Dobey hadn't yet brought up the matter of a new partner, but Hutch knew it was only a question of time. Especially with this drug case coming to a head real fast. According to their Vegas connection, things were going to start popping any day. Hutch knew he had to have a partner, but he didn't want to think about it. It didn't matter a damn bit who he worked with. Like he'd told Starsky's mother, he was tired. Just so damned tired.
He banged away at the typewriter, the air around him punctuated with four-letter words as he tried to pound out the long-overdue report. It was a case they'd handled together and every word was a reminder of the emptiness Starsky had left behind.
Hutch finally ripped the paper out of the typewriter, signed it, and leaned back in his chair, rubbing his fingers against his throbbing temples. The headache that was trying to slice his skull down the middle already seemed to have lasted a century or two and still showed no sign of letting up. His self-diagnosis was tension, but that knowledge had no effect on the pain.
He rummaged in the drawer for a couple of stale aspirin, swallowed them with the dregs of a long-cold cup of coffee, and eased wearily to his fee. Dobey's office was empty and Hutch gratefully dropped the report on his desk and walked back into the squadroom. He was in no mood for a pep talk or anything else--except maybe a cold beer. Or maybe nine or ten of them. He glanced down at his watch. "Close enough," he muttered, grabbing his jacket off the back of his chair. He had had been avoiding the Pits since Starsky's departure, but tonight he needed a friendly face.
Just after five and the lounge was beginning to fill with the after-work regulars but Hutch got a beer at the bar and carried it to a table by the back wall. Huggy was out somewhere, but he was content to sit and stare into the golden brew as if the secrets of the world might be within the glass.
"Man, I have heard of downers, but this is ridiculous."
Hutch jumped, startled by Huggy's voice, then pulled himself into the real world. "Hi, Hug."
"Hi, Hug," the black man repeated. "The two of you are not only giving my place a bad name with your infectious high spirits, but you share a depressing lack of originality in your greetings."
Hutch was confused. "The two of us?"
"You and the former detective. Your other half."
"Wait a minute, " Hutch said urgently. "Are you saying that Starsk was in here?"
"Sure. Just a little while ago. In fact, he was sitting at this same table, spreadin' the same doom and gloom over the surroundings. Didn't you know he was in town?"
"No." Hutch leaned wearily against the back of the chair. "No, I didn't know." He took a long, slow swallow from the glass in front of him, but the beer was suddenly flat and tasteless in his mouth. "He say anything about why he was back?"
Huggy shifted in obvious discomfort. "Hey, man," he said finally. "I'm sorry. I thought he let you know. He's just back for a couple days to pack up."
"Pack up," Hutch repeated. "So he's really going." He reached for the beer again, then put it down again. "Oh, hell, I ... " His voice trailed off. He pushed away from the table and stood. "I gotta go, Hug. I ... I'll see you." He could feel his fragile control beginning to slip and he had to get away. He started for the door, but a hand on his shoulder stopped him. He didn't look around.
"Hey, bro'," Huggy said softly, "take it easy, huh?"
Hutch nodded and headed out into the fading sunlight.
* * *
Starsky fumbled for a firmer hold on the stack of empty cartons and slammed the trunk lid down with his elbow. He apparently didn't hear the old Ford drive up or see Hutch get out and start toward him.
He leaned the boxes against the car and began to dig around in his pocket. The top box started to slide and he grabbed for it.
"Need some help?"
Starsky jumped, obviously startled by the sound of Hutch's voice. "Hutch!" he said quickly, happily, but then the shutters came back across his eyes. "Yeah. Sure. Thanks."
"Okay." Hutch grabbed most of the boxes, while Starsky dug out his keys and headed for the apartment. Hutch fell into step beside him, searching in desperate silence for something to say that would end this nightmare, but he knew it was too late. "Huggy told me you were in town," he said finally. "I ... I, uh, was in the neighborhood. Thought you could use some help with the packing."
"Sure, why not?"
Hutch winced as the cold words tore through him like acid through a paper cup, but he followed Starsky into the apartment, trying not to react at the sight. The place was in complete disarray, with books and disconnected stereo parts everywhere.
"How's your mom?" he asked, needing to break the almost suffocating silence.
"Better ... thanks." Starsky dumped the rest of the boxes on the floor. He glanced at Hutch, but then looked away quickly. "Moving sure is a bitch," he said, his voice flat and lifeless.
"Yeah." Hutch didn't know how long they could keep this up, keep this wall between them.
Starsky picked up a carton and walked toward a stack of records on the end table. "You don't have to do this."
"I know." Hutch reached for a box too, fighting to keep his voice even, to keep from turning to the dark-haired man and begging him to stay. He moved over to a bookshelf, picked up a glass jar full of pennies and tightened the lid absently. "I sort of figure it's the least ..." His voice trailed off suddenly. He took a quick breath. "You, uh, keeping this?"
Starsky glanced at the jar and turned away. "Yeah. There's some newspaper on the couch. Wrap it in that."
"'Kay." But he stood there.
"What's happening on the job?" Starsky said in a muffled voice.
"That drug thing in Vegas is about to break. I gotta stake-out Friday night. They think a couple of dancers are bringing some stuff in."
"Who you on with?"
"Don't know. Does it fucking matter?" He turned toward the pile of newspapers and the jar slipped through his shaking fingers to crash against the floor, scattering glass and pennies over the room.
Starsky whirled around to see Hutch standing there as if frozen, staring at the remains of the jar. Hutch looked up slowly. "I ..."
Starsky walked over and bent down to pick up a large shard of glass. "Forget it. It's not important."
Hutch nodded silently and knelt on the carpet to gather the scattered pennies.
"I'm just sorry," he said softly, his voice hoarse with the effort of keeping a dam on his emotions. "I don't know what's wrong with me. I just seem to ruin everything lately. Even... us and eight years of ..." His voice trailed off again and he picked up another piece of glass and set it on the table. His hand trembled. He scooped up a handful of the pennies, then suddenly just let them slip through his fingers. He leaned back against the table, his eyes fixed firmly on the floor.
"I wish ..." he started dully. "I wish I could think of something to say. I wish things ... hell... I just want you to know that I understand now what you've been going through. I shouldn't have failed you before. I know you have responsibilities. Your mother needs you. She's a very special lady. When I talked to her--"
"When you what?" Starsky broke in.
Hutch looked up at him and tried for a smile. "She called me yesterday morning."
Starsky just stared at him in silence.
"Hey, don't worry. I said all the right things. She just wanted some reassurance."
"She wanted to know the real reasons you're moving back. I told her you'd been thinking about it for a long time, that it had something to do with her getting sick, but nothing to do with any ... any trouble between us. I said you were tired."
Starsky looked down at him for a long time, then walked to the window. After a moment, Hutch got up too, and walked toward him. He started to reach out, then let his hand fall back to his side. Oh, god. He turned away suddenly and the words seemed to tear themselves from his unwilling lips.
"I don't want you to go."
Starsky turned around quickly as Hutch slumped into a chair, the tears finally loosed to run down his face. They burned his skin. "I didn't mean to say that. Oh, god, I didn't mean to say it, Starsk. I'm sorry. You've got enough ... I'm sorry."
Starsky walked to him slowly and there were matching tears in his eyes as he knelt by the chair and looked up at Hutch.
But Hutch couldn't meet his eyes. He looked away, wiping at his face uselessly. "I can't think what to do or say. Shouldn't have come." He jumped up suddenly and ran for the door, but Starsky grabbed him by one arm, turned him around. Hutch stood limply in his grasp, staring sightlessly down at the floor.
"Hutch." Starsky's voice was rough and Hutch raised his eyes to see his own pain mirrored in the other man's face.
"Starsk." He draped his arms around his partner's shoulders, feeling two arms tighten around him as they clung together like desperate children afraid of the dark.
"I didn't mean to do this," Hutch said through the last of his gasping sobs.
"Shush," Starsky said. "If you say you're sorry again, I'll scream." The arms tightened. "It's not your fault. Don't."
They stood there for an eternity, then Starsky dropped his arms and ran a hand over his face. "Buddy, we've got to talk. Finally we've got to talk." He took a deep, shaky breath. "I got a couple of beers in the fridge. Sit."
Hutch nodded wordlessly as Starsky headed for the kitchen. He dropped onto the couch. At least, he knew now how Starsky felt, but he also knew the long run, it wouldn't make any difference. Couldn't.
Hutch took the beer and held the cold can against his throbbing head. Starsky said finally. "We really screwed things up this time, didn't we?"
Hutch looked at him. "I don't understand why you couldn't tell me."
"I didn't want to hurt you."
He laughed humorlessly and took a long drink of the beer. "Gee, thanks."
"Yeah, I know," Starsky said with a small smile. Then it faded. "I didn't know how to say good-bye. There wasn't any way."
Hutch closed his eyes against the pain lancing across his soul. Then he opened them again and looked at his partner. "What now?" A pause as long as a heart beat. "She needs you."
Starsky took a slow drink. A thought came to him, reflected in his face. "She's the one who insisted I come back out here myself."
Hutch pushed off the couch and tossed the empty can toward the trash. He took a deep breath, staring at the ceiling. "I don't want you to go." The whisper was raw agony.
"I'm not sure I can. She sent me out here, but I think it was for more than just to pack. I think she knew that if we never saw each other again ... a real special lady." He thought some more. "You know, when she sent me out after my father died, she thought it was only for a while. That I'd be home again some day. I got me a funny feeling that this time it's different. I don't really think she expects me back." He looked around the room, his gaze stopped at last on Hutch. "I think she knew I was going home."
Hutch just looked at him, not daring to hope.
"I was a scared kid, Hutch, that first time. Everything was just falling apart and there wasn't anything I could do. There was no place that was really home, just places to live. But with us, things are in place. I feel like all mine again." He nodded, as if something had been decided. "I don't want to lose it all again. It's gonna work out, because I won't let it not."
Hutch finally walked over to him, putting a hand on Starsky's shoulder. He knew that tears stood again in his eyes, but these didn't burn.
"Welcome home, partner," he whispered. Starsky nodded slowly, then threw his arms around Hutch and hugged him tightly. When the embrace finally ended, he relaxed against the wall. His eyes traveled over the jumbled room. "Home." He grinned. "Well, you gonna stand there all day lookin' smug, or you gonna make yourself useful and pick the damn glass up off my floor?" He gave the room another look and shook his head. "Jesus, it'll take me a year to get this place in shape again." He pushed away from the wall and headed for the kitchen. "We need more beers, I think."
"Really." Hutch went to the bookcase and started shoving books back into place needing some immediate and tangible signal that Starsky was staying.
He took the new beer Starsky offered. "So, Hutch, what's this about a stakeout? Dancers bringing coke in from Vegas?"
Hutch sat on the floor and started to tell him about the case. Although there was nothing funny about it, he couldn't help smiling as he talked. Well, why not. The world was a great place and it was great to be alive. Starsky was back and nothing could pull them apart again. Nothing.