Comments on this story can be sent to

redblank5.gif (3065 bytes)

Part 1



Hutch felt a warm shoulder beneath his chin. The shoulder was low enough that he was able to rest his chin upon it, thereby easing a small amount of weight on his neck, back, and shoulders.

He would not be resting his chin upon the shoulder had he the strength to move away from it. But his ordeal had left his body weak, his spirit broken, and now he had to suffer the humiliation of not being able to refuse the moment's respite offered by one of his tormentors.

Somewhere along the line, the gag had been removed. Had he the strength, Hutch would have begged the man to not move his shoulder away, for it seemed like incredible bliss to be able to rest his head there, after having had it hang for so long. He was past the point of having any hope of his arms being released from where they were stretched out from his body.

His back stung, but that was a torment he had grown accustomed to; that is, as long as there were no new applications of the whip. It seemed like there hadn't been for a while, but he could no longer trust his sense of time.

And, the worst of it, the awful cold....

Which was why he rested his head's full weight upon the shoulder... to grab those few seconds of longed-for rest; to feel the warmth against his chin and cheek, even though it was provided by one of his tormentors.

The man spoke to him. Hutch wasn't sure if it was one voice or two, for he had long since flown to a haven of darkness, shutting out any light. He could not decipher the words, nor had he the desire. These men were evil and he had no interest in anything they had to say.

His hands were cold and numb, and he only peripherally began to realize that his ropes were being untied. His sense of relief was followed by trepidation, for now that they were finished with this part he feared what he was certain was going to come next.

The shoulder beneath his cheek shifted and moved as the effort continued at his hands. Hutch wished it would stay in one place, wished he would be allowed to sleep, then never have to wake up....

He was jolted by the sensation of falling. Hands gripped his armpits. His head found the shoulder again, but only with another rude jolt . A warm hand was placed on the back of his head, pressing him closer against the shoulder.

A bitterness welled up, self-hatred for not having the strength to pull back.

Hands were touching him... brushing along his flesh, except for his back... and he mentally traced the warmth wherever it went, silently begging it not to leave.

It did leave, but then fingers gripped him high on his sides, and he heard himself gasp from the pressure on tender ribs, the pinching of his skin. And everything hurt in a new way as he felt himself in the air, then had the sensation of being upside-down.

He was being hauled over a shoulder, he realized now, for he rested uncomfortably against a shoulder bone, hands holding his naked waist and butt. The humiliation was there again, and he wanted to hide from his own weakness....

They were moving. He groaned at the pain the motion caused in his ribs, and the hands holding him tightened further.

He was aware of crossing a threshold, for the air was warmer, though also stale. Indoors?

Hutch felt himself being lowered, placed upon something soft. But as his weight sunk into it, he realized something beneath the softness was hard and firm. He was being held in a sitting position, hands still gripping his sides to prevent him from slumping as he wished to.

He was allowed to fall forward, and his face rested against a warm body. Again, he detested his failure to reject the warmth, his inability to find the strength to move away from it. The body was shifting. Hutch's position remained still, but he could feel the movement of muscle and ligaments in the other man.

Cloth touched Hutch's back, and he shuddered and gasped as torn nerve endings throbbed and stung while the cloth was pulled tight, part of it wrapped around to the front of him and tied at his chest.

The warm body pulled back, and his upper arm was held in a tight grasp. The cloth beneath him was being pulled, and the grip on his arm tightened painfully, as though his tormentor was trying to hold him upright while maneuvering the material.

The grip relaxed and Hutch collapsed onto his side, grateful for the softness beneath his body.

A hand settled on his buttock and he flinched, not wanting to face what was going to come next.

Then respite... for the hand was taken away. Another layer of softness was placed over him. Then the body left him completely and he lay there, shivering from head to toe, certain he would never again know what it meant to be warm.

There was the sound of voices... an urgent voice... a one-sided conversation... then the single ring of a phone disturbed when a receiver is slammed upon it.

He was no longer restrained. He should run for it. Get up and escape.

Hutch sent the message to his limbs while hearing running water and the slamming of cabinets in the background. His body responded sluggishly... he wasn't sure if his arms and legs even moved at all. He was too weak. And the hopelessness and self-loathing was upon him once again....

And it was too late. The man was back beside him. A hand settled on his upturned buttock, beneath the covering, and he trembled. Another hand was placed in his hair. A gentle touch... as though a cruel preparation for what they intended next. A trick.

An almost-hot cloth was placed around his neck. The softness covering him was shifted, and another heated cloth was pressed behind his scrotum, upward against his crotch. He whimpered at the pain and violation.

And yet the warmth felt good, and he was so focused upon it that he forgot to ignore the voice that was talking to him. "Take it easy," it whispered while a hand stroked through his hair. "Just tryin' to warm you up a bit."

He wanted to respond to the words, for it was the path of least resistance... the only thing he had the energy left to do.

And to obey that voice seemed so instinctive.

It was the same voice that had been chattering insistently ever since something had supported his chin. The same voice that was speaking so softly and soothingly... worriedly.

A memory flared, but Hutch squelched it, determined to not be tricked, for that would be the cruelest violation of all.

The hand left his crotch, leaving the cloth there. It felt good, as did the one against his neck.

Crotch and neck. Points of anatomy where the body is warmest. Points of anatomy that absorb heat most quickly. Points of anatomy that should be tended to when treating hypothermia....

First aid. Help.

"Hang on, Hutch." Such a gentle whisper. "I'm gettin' into the sleeping bag with you. Gonna warm you up."

It was not possible. That fact Hutch had determined a long time ago... back when they had applied the first lashes of the whip. There was no way his partner could be here.

"Okay, here we go. Gonna be a tight fit, but it's all gonna be okay."

The top covering moved. The brush of the other's flesh, some clothed and some not, made Hutch shiver more profusely -- from anticipation of receiving more warmth, from fear of having the enemy so close.

Unless it was...?

For a moment, a finger touched his back, applying pressure on an open gash, and he heard himself make an anguished cry of protest. The hand quickly moved down, resting on his buttock.

"Sorry, sorry."

The wound throbbed and stung, but Hutch's confusion overwhelmed everything else. The other body was wriggling profusely, working its way beneath the covering, brushing against him.

"Hutch," the anxious voice whispered, "tell me if I touch you somewhere where it hurts. Don't wanna hurtcha anymore, babe."

That voice, that concern. It could only be...

The promise of what might be overrode his fear. Hutch opened his eyes.

Only blurriness confronted him. Slowly, it cleared.

He was looking into bright, worried, sapphire blue eyes, inches from his own. They crinkled to form a smile. "How ya doin'?"

Hutch meant to smile back, thought his heart would burst from his chest as it soared with relief, thought he would never again have to wish for anything in his life....

But something within betrayed everything that should have been. He felt his chest collapse at the same time his dry throat constricted. His vision clouded in an instant, and a sound burst from his throat... incoherent and smothered.

Hutch didn't understand why it was happening, but his brain eventually figured out that he was crying. He desperately wanted to stop -- for he feared the other would misunderstand; and because his throat, ribs, and back hurt with each inhaled and choked-out breath.

"Easy does it, babe." The softest of whispers. A hand gently furrowing in his hair, drawing his head closer to the warmth, pressing his face against the unclothed, furred chest.

The scent that was his partner assaulted him full force. Hutch relaxed. And the sobs and tears flowed more freely.

He could feel the movements of his partner. A leg worked its way between his own, hooked a foot around his calf, drawing their bodies closer. Hutch felt the sensation of the other stretching, and then something was placed over his head, blocking out whatever light he'd been able to detect through the blurriness.

Some of Starsky's movement pressed against Hutch's ribs. While there was initial pain, the other's body also provided a degree of support, and Hutch found himself breathing easier.

His hands were taken within his partner's, then his fingers were pushed into an opening that had cotton on one side and flesh on the other. It was warm in that place. So warm.

A hand was on his buttocks, rubbing briskly there, occasionally dropping down to the back of his thigh. Another hand was on his chest, massaging firmly in the narrow space between their bodies, spreading the warmth.

Somewhere along the line, the tears stopped and he was drained of all feeling. But he badly wanted to speak. He forced his vocal chords to vibrate. Starsk? He thought it came out as an incoherent squeak.

The warmth pulled back. The covering over his head was shifted, and his chin was tilted up with a gentle finger. "Right here, pal."

His eyes had closed and now he had to make the effort to open them. And the same face that was there before came into focus.

"It's gonna be okay, Hutch. Warmin' up a little?"

The words were calm, gentle, soothing. But the eyes held a brightness, a sadness, that Hutch wished he could dissipate.

He wanted to nod his answer, but he couldn't send the proper messages to his brain. So he only gazed back at the other, hoping to communicate in a way that words could not.

Hutch felt the heat beginning to disperse throughout the surface area of his body, though he doubted he would ever feel warm again at bone level. He felt more alert, less confused... but the renewed circulation through his veins was causing his nerve endings to send frantic messages to his brain. And a fire began along his back.

He closed his eyes and a painful gasp emerged, dragging his emotional euphoria to a sudden stop.

"Easy, Hutch." Tender, concerned words. "Easy does it."

He tried to stifle a further gasp, but the fire was spreading, increasing in intensity. He choked out a hiccup.

"I know it hurts. But it's gonna be okay. Help's on the way."

Help. Coming. Starsky had been on the phone. Civilization. How far...?

Hutch squinted his eyes open. From beneath the zipper of the jacket that was over his head, he could see the interior of a cabin. The cabin that housed the men who....


"Hutch, take it easy. Take it easy."

Starsk. His throat hurt, it was so raw, and he couldn't seem to get his tongue to form words.

"Hutch, I'm right here. It's gonna be okay."

Hutch calmed, waited until he could get a thought together enough to speak. "Starsk?" It was a whisper, but not quite so gruff.

An ear tilted near him. "I'm right here, pal. Right here."

Hutch heard the fear in his own cracked voice. "They 'ome b'ck."

The head turned and eyes were looking at him. Their sympathy softened into tenderness. Starsky whispered, "They're dead, Hutch. It's okay. Not gonna hurt anyone ever again."

Hutch closed his eyes. Starsky had killed them. That was the only way the other could be so sure.

As relief traveled through him, he let himself relax. But giving in to the exhaustion brought the tightness back to his throat, the tears back to his eyes. He heard himself choke out more sobs.

A finger brushed against his mustache. "It's okay, Hutch." The voice was so soft, soothing. "It's all right. Rest if you can. Cryin's okay, but try to relax and rest. It's real important."

Starsky was so worried. Hutch wanted to say that he was all right now, knowing the men were dead, knowing they could never do what he knew they had intended. But that reassurance was too long a sentence for his brain to manufacture, and the only noise he could make were more choked sobs.

And he wasn't really all right. His back stung and throbbed, his chest was constricted. Some of his ribs hurt. Muscles were cramped throughout his body. And there was still the cold.

His head was drawn back to the chest that was covered by nothing but a layer of hair. He longed for its warmth, but felt smothered when pressed against it.

Starsky's hand settled on his hair. It applied pressure, urging Hutch to turn his face so his cheek rested against Starsky, and oxygen infiltrated his airway more freely.

His hair was stroked. The hand on his buttocks pressed him closer.

Starsky's soft voice whispered, "Try to take it easy. I'm right here."

Hutch tried to do as directed, but each time lassitude threatened he became all the more conscious of the pain. And his tear ducts wouldn't quit.

"It's all gonna be okay, Hutch. It's all gonna be okay."

He wanted to squeeze Starsky's hand, feel its strength and security. But he couldn't find his own hands, for he didn't know where they were. He concentrated, trying to locate his fingers. They were in a warm place. He wriggled them. Felt fabric. Felt skin and hair. Felt wiry hair.

"Fingers warmin' up?"

Hutch explored a little further, encountering something that felt like a hipbone. Then he knew where his fingers were. He could now feel his arms for his wrists stung, but not as badly as his back. He started to pull his hands from their safe haven.

With gentle firmness, Starsky said, "Leave 'em there, Hutch. Gotta keep you nice and warm."

Hutch readily obeyed, for he forgot why he intended to remove them in the first place. And indeed, it was warm there. So warm that he imagined his hands must feel very cold to the flesh next to them. In fact, he thought he could feel his partner shivering.

"Help's on the way, Hutch. Hang on."

Hutch let himself relax further. The tears had finally dried up, leaving him in a lethargic haze. His back stung and throbbed to such a relentless degree that he thought he might throw up, but then he was distracted by Starsky's voice.

"Relax, Hutch," it soothed as hands continued to massage along his chest and butt. "Relax. It's gonna be fine. It's all gonna be fine."

He let the gentle sound lull him into a comforting darkness.

* * *

Two hours later, Starsky lay on his side in the emergency room of a small town hospital, wrapped in a blanket. He had been so successful at transferring his body heat to Hutch that when the rescue units found them it was he who had been shivering. Once they were at the hospital, they made him lie down, covered him, and took his vitals. He acquiesced only because they agreed to not curtain him off from Hutch. The emergency room contained only five beds, all empty upon their arrival. Now Hutch was lying on the center one, Starsky on the one two beds down.

Two doctors sat on stools on either side of Hutch, both stitching his back. They'd been at it a long time, neither speaking as they went from one gash to another. Thankfully, the anesthetic had allowed Hutch to finally settle into a semblance of sleep. For, until then, he had needed some coaxing to keep him calm and assured, even though he'd shown signs of understanding that everyone was trying to help him and the worst of his ordeal was over.

There was the sound of a radio and Starsky looked toward the doorway. A nurse frowned at the uniformed man who entered, who then guiltily turned down the volume on his walkie-talkie.

"Sheriff Tuney," Starsky greeted softly.

The man, who had thinning red hair and stood about six foot four, pulled up a stool next to Starsky's bed and sat down. "All right, Sergeant," he said in a quiet tone, "now that your partner's being taken care of, why don't we go over it a little more slowly?"

Starsky flicked his eyes to Hutch and saw that the blond still appeared to be resting. Then his gaze switched back to focus on the man beside his own bed. He liked Tuney because the other hadn't tried to badger him for anything more than the most basic details when help had arrived at the scene, understanding that Starsky's attention was solely on Hutch.

Starsky glanced at the clock -- it had been dark out when they had arrived and now it was twenty after eight -- then turned his attention back to the sheriff. "I was away in New York on vacation. I came back early and thought I'd surprise Hutch, because he'd told everyone he was going fishing up this way after stopping in Bakersfield to talk to the PD there about a murder that was similar to a couple that had taken place in L.A." He paused while Tuney wrote on his pad, then continued. "No one knew for sure where Hutch had gone, but I remembered a fishing spot he really liked from years back, so I figured I'd look there first. I found his car but he wasn't around. Downstream a ways, I found his fishing boots and pole. That's when I started to get the feelin' something was wrong." Starsky swallowed. How strong that feeling had been. "I started lookin' around. Then I hiked up a hill there and saw the cabin down on another side of the hill. I saw someone tied to the posts next to the cabin, spread-eagled. I could see enough that I knew it was Hutch." He paused, letting Tuney write while recalling the disbelief that had assaulted him. "I saw a guy whipping him, another, like, standing watch. I ran down the mountain as fast as I could. When I was close enough, I fired a shot into the air and said, 'Police!' They looked up and reached for some pistols -- I guess they were on the ground -- and I fired at the closest one and he went right down. I fired at the second guy the same time he fired at me. He missed. I went over to the first guy and I saw him wearing a weird looking ring and that's when I knew they were the same two suspects as the case we were working on -- the one Hutch had gone to Bakersfield for. " God, the fear he felt then. But Starsky's voice was carefully neutral. "When I bent down to feel his pulse, I saw the second guy struggling for his pistol, and I fired off two more rounds. I made sure he was dead. Then I took care of Hutch."

Starsky lapsed into silence. He had been certain that Hutch was dead. The blond had sagged in his bonds, completely still. He had soiled himself and his skin was chillingly cold. Blood ran lazily down his back, buttocks and legs. Starsky had been shaking so much with grief that when he reached to feel for a pulse he hadn't been able to find the carotid artery. It was only when he dropped his gaze with despair that he saw the stomach muscles move with a slight inhalation. Then all he could think about was getting Hutch down from there.

The cabin had had no furnishings other than sleeping bags. Without any other options, Starsky had laid Hutch on the nearest one. There had been a phone on the wall and he was shocked that it actually worked and had wasted no time in calling the authorities. He'd found a couple of rags but they were too dirty to apply to the wounds, so he had used them instead as warm compresses, surprised that the cabin actually had hot water. He had taken off his shirt and tied it around Hutch's back. It wasn't nearly large enough to do an adequate job, but Starsky hadn't been as worried about the loss of blood as much he had been about as how cold Hutch was. Though the temperature outside was a respectable sixty-five degrees, it was far too cold for one who was naked and injured, and the shock from the loss of blood -- to say nothing of whatever mental trauma there may have been -- compounded the situation. Starsky had gotten into the sleeping bag with Hutch, tried to wrap himself around the other, though it was difficult since he couldn't put his arms around Hutch's back and simply draw him closer. Instead, he'd had to settle for putting a hand on his partner's buttocks, and the implications had scared him when Hutch flinched. But that, he realized now, was before Hutch was aware of who he was. Starsky had placed Hutch's ice-cold fingers inside the front of his jeans and put his jacket over Hutch's head.

Then came recognition. And all those tears. Starsky had actually been relieved to see them for, as with a newborn, he'd thought the crying would get Hutch's heart pumping and get his circulation going to help the warming process. It appeared to work, though the drawback had been the awareness of pain, which Hutch seemed to have previously escaped from with whatever mental journey he'd taken.


Starsky blinked, turning his attention back to the sheriff.

"Who at the Bakersfield Police was working on the case?"

"Detective Newman. He'll have all the details about what those perverts have done to their victims."

Tuney made a note. Then, delicately, he asked, "Do you think your partner was sexually assaulted?"

Starsky firmed his jaw. He hadn't been sure at first, especially when Hutch had flinched. Now he was. "They didn't get that far. They weren't done tearing up his back yet."

Tuney glanced over at Hutch, then looked skeptically at Starsky.

"When you get the pictures of the victim from Bakersfield," Starsky told him, "you'll understand what I mean."

Their eyes met, then Tuney put away his pad.

There was the murmur of voices and both men looked at the center of attention. The doctors had started suturing near Hutch's shoulders, and had cleaned the wounds as they worked their way down. They seemed to be almost done, for they were at Hutch's lower back. Now they were gently parting his legs, talking amongst themselves.

Starsky felt his heart race, and he looked pleadingly at a nurse who was watching the doctors. He caught her eye and she moved over to him.

"What's going on?" he asked in a small voice.

"His testicles are bruised and swollen," she told him. "Like somebody gave him a good kick."

Tuney looked away. Disgustedly, he said, "That's easy to do to somebody who's spread-eagled and can't defend himself."

Starsky didn't comment. In truth, he was relieved that it wasn't something worse.

The nurse presented a friendly smile. "He'll be all right." She took some equipment that was hanging on the wall, next to the gurney. "Let's take another look at you. Can you sit up?"

Keeping the blanket around his shoulders, Starsky hoisted himself into a sitting position. The nurse wrapped the blood pressure sleeve around his arm.

"That's all I need," Tuney said. "I'll come back tomorrow to see if your partner is well enough to give us a statement. If you need anything in the meantime, give me a call."

"Thanks, Sheriff."

"Would you like me to contact your captain and let him know what's going on?"

Starsky shook his head. "I'll call him myself as soon as they've got Hutch in a room."

Tuney waved as he turned. "Take care."

"How do you feel?" the nurse asked as she studied the BP monitor.

"I feel fine."

"The numbers are fine, too. Let's get your temperature to be sure." She inserted a thermometer into his mouth.

Starsky sat quietly, knowing his temperature had been slightly below normal when they had brought him in. He was warmed up now, though he wished he had a shirt to wear.

Both doctors stood and began putting away their supplies, a nurse stepping in to assist. Hutch's upper body was wrapped in a bandage, and the blanket that had been covering his legs was now drawn up to his neck. An IV that had been inserted when the paramedics arrived was still near his collar bone, that location chosen because his wrists had been so chafed and tender.

One of the doctors left the room. The other approached Starsky as the nurse removed the thermometer.

"How is he, Doc?" he asked as the physician halted before him.

"He took over 300 stitches. They'll be able to come out in about ten days." The doctor shrugged. "I'm afraid it's going to leave a lot of scarring."

Starsky didn't give a damn about the scarring. "What else?"

"Other than minor scrapes and bruises, he seems to have suffered a powerful kick to his groin. The swelling should subside in a matter of hours. Also, he looks to have either severely bruised or cracked ribs on his upper left side. We've chosen not to x-ray at this time, since we'd rather not disturb him, and there's not a lot we can do to treat it, anyway."

Starsky nodded agreement. "What happens now?"

The doctor glanced over his shoulder at the orderlies who were releasing the brakes on Hutch's gurney. "They'll take him up to his room. We'll give him a sedative to make sure he gets a good night's sleep."

Quickly, the curly-haired man reminded, "He's allergic to morphine."

The doctor nodded. "We have that in his record since you already mentioned it. We aren't giving him anything from that family. Since the wounds were so deep and there were so many, we're going to go ahead and give him an antibiotic to fight any infection that may set in."

The doctor stopped speaking, and in disbelief Starsky asked, "Then... he can go home tomorrow?"

The physician hesitated. "I'd rather keep him here tomorrow just to make sure nothing shows up that we've missed. But he should be able to leave the day after that."

Starsky let out a breath. That was good news.

"He's lost a lot of blood," the doctor said firmly. "So even though he'll be well enough to leave, he'll tire easily for the next two to three weeks. It'll take that long for his system to manufacture the blood cells he's lost."

Starsky nodded quickly. "Yeah, no problem."

"That does it for tonight." The doctor removed his stethoscope. "I'll be checking in on him during the day tomorrow."

"Thanks, Doc."

The doctor left. The nurse was still there and Starsky asked, "What room did they take him to?"

"I'm not sure. You need to check with the nurse's station. It's down the hall and to the right."

Starsky slid off the gurney. "I've got to stay with him tonight. If he wakes up in a strange place after what he's been through...."

Pleasantly, she replied, "Small town hospitals like this don't enforce visiting hours very strongly. It'll be all right for you to stay with him."

Starsky let out a breath. "Thanks."

She smiled at him. "Let me see if I can scrounge up a shirt or pajama top for you to wear."

* * *

The next morning was overcast, and with the light out and curtains drawn Hutch's room remained in near-darkness. The drugs had worked, for the blond hadn't woken up at all during the night. Starsky had sat in a chair next to the bed for a while, trying to still the questions in his mind about what his partner had been through. Finally, he'd stretched out on the remaining bed in the room and dozed off. In the morning, his first thought was that he needed to buy some clothes for them both, but he didn't want to leave and have Hutch wake up alone.

Finally Hutch stirred, his limbs shifting lazily beneath the sheets.

Starsky went over to the window and opened the curtain part-way, letting the morning's grayness penetrate the room. Then he sat in the chair next to Hutch's bed, watching pale eyelids flutter, listening to the soft noises of wakening.

Hutch had been facing the window, and when his eyes drifted open they immediately narrowed.

The chair was also on that side of the bed. "Hey, buddy," Starsky whispered as he laid a hand on the arm that was visible from beneath the covers.

Hutch's eyes rose meet his. They narrowed again, this time in puzzlement. "Starsk?" His voice was weak and dry.

The shorter man let a smile dominate his expression. "Hey, there, tiger."

Hutch started to hoist himself onto a forearm, then he froze and squeezed his eyes shut, gasping.

Starsky was out of his chair and holding his partner by the shoulders. "Hutch, easy. Easy does it. You gotta be real careful about movin' around."

The tight expression eased and Hutch looked down at the bandage around his body. His eyes widened, and he slowly -- as though afraid of what he might see -- tilted his head back over his shoulder.

There was nothing to see but more of the bandage. Gently, Starsky said, "Let me give you a hand. Want to turn on your side?"

Hutch didn't move, other than drawing a deep breath. Then he murmured, "It wasn't a dream."

The other swallowed. "No. But you're gonna be fine, Hutch." He gripped the shoulders. "Let's at least get you turned...."

It was difficult with the IV in the way, but Hutch allowed Starsky to manipulate him onto his side so that he was facing the window. He spent a few seconds regaining his breath, then his eyes narrowed again. "Where am I?"

Starsky clasped his hand. "In a friendly little hospital in a town called Independence."

Hutch's expression showed recognition at the name. He looked up. "What day is it?"

"It's about eleven o'clock, Saturday morning."

Slowly the blond shook his head, staring at the other. In a hushed tone, he said, "You weren't due back...."

Starsky presented a tiny smile. "I came back early."

Hutch closed his eyes, a pained expression overtaking his features. He turned his face into the pillow.

The curly-haired man wasn't sure what mental demons Hutch was facing. He moved out of the chair and carefully sat on the edge of the bed. Then he brushed his hand through delicate, palomino strands. "It's okay, Hutch," he whispered tenderly. "It's okay now."

Hutch bit his lower lip. Then, in a strained, gruff tone, he said, "Didn't think you'd be back." He swallowed thickly and forced out, "In time."

Oh God, Hutch. Starsky couldn't imagine what that must have been like. In every life or death situation he had ever faced, Hutch had been there with him to see it through -- at least to the point that he'd known Hutch was frantically searching for him.

Starsky wasn't sure what words to say but knew that his presence was most important. He continued petting back through the hair. Hutch alternated between staring out the window and squeezing his eyes shut, as though trying to force back a memory that wouldn't quit.

Gently, Starsky asked, "Still scared?"

There was the motion of the Adam's apple bobbing. Then a slight nod.

Starsky trailed his hand down until it rested on Hutch's cheek. There, his fingertips massaged gently. "I'm gonna be right here. Not goin' nowhere." He could imagine the thought process Hutch was going through, for he had experienced it himself in traumatic situations. You tell yourself that everything is fine now -- those who caused harm are either dead or in custody -- yet, the feeling of intense vulnerability persists... sometimes for days... sometimes for weeks... sometimes longer than that.

Hutch looked up at him. "They're dead?"

Starsky nodded. "They're dead."

The blond's gaze returned to the window.

Starsky's hand moved to a shoulder, settling there. "Hutch, the sheriff is going to be by sometime to get your statement about what happened. I'll be here, too, so you only have to go through it once. But, just for now...," Starsky himself swallowed, hesitant to ask, but wanting to know, "... did they tell you why they were doing it?"

The eyes closed again and Hutch shook his head once, firmly. "They never said anything to me. They didn't say anything to each other." Bleakly, he added, "They didn't say anything at all. And... and it wasn't like they were even enjoying it. It... it...," he let out a breath, then, "Did they do an autopsy? I'm not sure they were human."

Starsky blinked. Hutch couldn't be serious. And yet, the other definitely wasn't joking. Levelly, he replied, "I'm sure they'll do autopsies."

This time when Hutch's eyes closed, the lids held a weariness. After a few moments, he asked, "How bad is it?"

Starsky had to consider the meaning of the question. "Your back?"


"You took over 300 stitches. How does it feel?"

"Sore. Tight and sore." His voice softened. "Real sore."

"They can probably give you something for it."

Hutch's eyes flew open wide.

"They know about the morphine," Starsky assured quickly.

Hutch relaxed then, taking a deep breath. "Thanks." After a moment, his brows narrowed and his hand moved down his body, beneath the covers. "What did they....?"

The curly-haired man wasn't sure if Hutch meant getting kicked or... "You have a catheter," he informed gently. "I guess because they weren't sure how long you were going to be asleep."

The full lips twisted. "Great."

Starsky had experience with the discomfort of the device. "I'm sure they'll take it out now that you're awake." There was no response and he ventured, "Want me to get the nurse?"

The blue eyes stared out the window. In a small voice, Hutch replied, "Not just yet."

Starsky waited, wondering what more his partner wanted to say before strangers invaded the room. After a few moments he laid a hand on Hutch's shoulder and rubbed gently.

Hutch took Starsky's hand in his and pressed it against his chest. He closed his eyes tightly, squeezing it.

Starsky felt something shimmer within his own chest. He couldn't pretend to know what Hutch had gone through. He was going to have to wait until Hutch was ready to tell him.

Hutch rolled forward slightly, so that Starsky's hand rested more firmly between his chest and the sheets, his own hand still holding it. His eyes stayed closed, as though he were in some world of his own, and Starsky's hand was the only link to the outside... or perhaps the only link of any kind that the blond cared to possess.

They stayed like that until a nurse switched on the light and cheerfully announced that lunch was being served.

* * *

Sheriff Tuney visited late in the afternoon, as did Detective Newman from Bakersfield, who wanted to put a lid on the case in his city. The latter seemed shaken that Hutch had turned out to be the next victim, and he was sincere in his wishes for a speedy recovery. Both law officers were disappointed in what little Hutch had learned from the men responsible. Tuney said that the bodies had possessed no identification. The cabin was owned by a wealthy couple in Seattle who claimed they had not rented it out to anyone and did not know the two men. The ownership of the car parked outside the cabin could not be traced.

Starsky sat quietly while Hutch gave his statement, achingly aware that everything his partner said was told in precise, even tones, sprinkled with very little of his own feelings about his capture and abuse. But he knew that those feelings existed close to the surface, were battled every time Hutch closed his eyes.

The next morning, they were on their way home. The trip was over 200 miles but seemed much longer. Tuney's teenage nephew, a car enthusiast, agreed to drive the Torino down in a few days. Hutch and Starsky took the LTD so Hutch could stretch out along the back seat, but the taller detective seemed unable to get comfortable. He even tried sitting in the front seat once -- with abruptly purchased pillows strategically placed against his upper shoulders and lower back -- but that proved unworkable. His inability to rest made him irritable and at one point he launched into a two-minute tirade about the ineptness of Starsky's driving. Starsky didn't bother responding, knowing there was nothing personal in the words. After over a minute of silence, Hutch meekly said, "Sorry". Starsky replied, "It's okay". Neither man spoke the remaining 80 miles.

Starsky made sure Hutch was settled at Venice Place, then went to Parker Center. Though he was officially on vacation, he needed to make a report about what had transpired. Plus, he knew Dobey would feel better after speaking to him in person. When he had first called their captain from the hospital, the black man had been shocked and vehemently concerned about Hutch's condition. It had been such a gruesome case. No one had expected the next victim to be one of the Department's finest.

After leaving the station, Starsky stopped to pick up a few groceries and a large tube of Neosporin, which the doctor said would help speed healing and deter infection if rubbed into Hutch's sutures on a daily basis. When Starsky arrived back at the apartment it was close to six o'clock. He found Hutch sitting hunched forward on the couch, listlessly watching television. Starsky warmed up a can of potato soup and grilled a couple of cheese sandwiches. Hutch ate hungrily, but he seemed distracted and conversation was kept to a minimum.

Starsky cleaned up while his partner sat silently at the table. Then he picked up the tube of cream. "We need to take off your bandage and put some of this on."

Hutch looked up at him, nodded, and stood. Wearily, he moved to where the bed was, his partner following. He sat on the edge and slowly moved his hands down the front of his shirt, loosening the buttons one by one.

The silence was wearing on Starsky's nerves. He was about to speak -- insist that Hutch say something -- but Hutch spoke instead.

"Tell me," the blond demanded in a low voice while staring at the floor, his shirt falling open as the last button was released, "how it is that you came back early."

Starsky realized that he shouldn't have been surprised at the question. He'd told Hutch what had happened since his arrival, but not how he'd come to be home early in the first place. "Well," he shrugged, reaching to pull back Hutch's shirt, "after the wedding there was all the festivities and the whole family -- there were over 200 people there -- was all around and most of 'em wanted to talk to me since they hadn't seen me in a long time." He pulled the shirt back, and Hutch -- without lifting his gaze -- gingerly removed one arm from its sleeve, then the other. "And, well," Starsky's own gaze shifted to the floor, "a lot of them were making comments about the fact that Nicky -- my younger brother -- tied the knot before I did." Starsky moved to take some scissors from the nightstand. Then he stood looking down at Hutch, scissors in hand, and was glad when Hutch slowly looked up at him, a spark behind the his partner's otherwise bleak expression. "So, that's the way a lot of the conversations went."

Starsky sat back down and cut the knot that had secured the bandaging. "Everyone was wanting to know when I was going to 'grow up', 'settle down', and things like that." He began to unwrap the long cotton strip. "If you want to know the truth," he said blandly, "even though I knew they meant well, I was startin' to feel a little persecuted." His hands paused. "And I missed you, Hutch."

The blond turned to look at him, the bare hint of a smile lighting a mouth corner.

Starsky smiled back, continued with the unwrapping. "So, I was gettin' a little restless. And then Uncle Al and Aunt Rosie were sayin' they wanted to take even more time drivin' back -- wanting to go down south through Tennessee and places like that. And some of the other relatives started gettin' interested and then they all started plannin' this big trip." The unwrapping complete, Starsky pushed the cloth to one side, not letting the sight before him affect his tone. "So, all of a sudden, it was apparent that they didn't need me to help with the drivin'. So I caught a plane out early the next morning."

Hutch was staring at the opposite wall and didn't reply.

Starsky thought he owed it to the other to complete the story. But he had to lower his voice to a whisper. "Seein' all those people together, I felt kinda out of place. I had a real strong urge to get back to you...." He wondered how Hutch would take that. Between them, it was the blond who was usually the most openly sentimental about their relationship.

Hutch looked at him, brows furrowed. "You sensed something was wrong?"

The other man thought about it. Then he said, "No. I just... felt like I wanted to be with you. It was a real strong feelin'. To, you know, get back where I belonged. I tried to call you to pick me up at the airport on Saturday morning. Dobey said you'd gone up to Bakersfield and then was going fishing. So, as soon as I was home I started up north. I stopped at Bakersfield and talked to the detective there, because I thought you might have told him where you were going. He wasn't much help, so I just put my instincts in gear. And I remembered that one place you liked so much that we went to that one summer."

Both men sat silent.

After a time, Starsky delicately ventured, "When are you gonna tell me what it was like for you?"

The blond head turned, the expression showing annoyance that he was being asked to repeat himself.

Starsky knew what his friend was thinking and clarified, "I mean about what it was like for you." He lightly tapped his own chest. "In here."

Hutch looked away, firming his jaw. He rested his elbows on his knees and stared at the curtains drawn over the window.

Starsky waited.

"In all my life," Hutch whispered slowly, not turning his head, "even after all the close calls we've had, I have never, ever known fear like I did with those men."

He had wanted Hutch to talk, but Starsky didn't know what he could say that would make it better. And since Hutch knew he didn't know what to say, it would be pointless to throw out meaningless platitudes. Starsky opted for truth. "Anyone who knew what those men were capable of would have to be brain-dead to not be afraid."

Hutch closed his eyes. "It wasn't just," he swallowed thickly, "that I knew what they were going to do. It was... I...."

It was instinctive to place a hand on his partner's back, but that area of Hutch's body was off limits. Starsky hesitated, then reached to rest his hand behind the nearest knee, squeezing gently.

"It was like...." Weakly, Hutch gestured toward his chest. Then his whisper softened. "There was... no hope. I knew you couldn't come. I knew no one could come. I couldn't come to my own rescue... couldn't help myself. There was no one. And I was nothing. Nobody."

Starsky inched closer on the bed, swallowing thickly. "Hutch..."

"I've never felt so helpless, so afraid, in my entire life." The blond's gaze dropped from the curtain and his head bowed. "So alone."

Starsky pressed his face against Hutch's arm, still not knowing what could be said. Except sorry. And sorry wouldn't help.

"I kept thinking," Hutch went on in a stronger tone, "about how angry you'd be."

Starsky straightened, not understanding.

"How I'd gotten myself in yet another mess. Only this time you wouldn't be able to pull me out in time. And I knew you'd be so mad that I'd gone off and gotten myself killed. Didn't give you a chance to intervene. And you'd have to spend the rest of your life going after those responsible."

The curly-haired man took a deep breath. Levelly, he noted, "You've pulled me out of my share of 'messes', too. I think we're pretty even in that department."

Hutch didn't reply.

Firmly, Starsky noted, "You had no options, Hutch. They had guns, you didn't. There was nothing you coulda done different and still gotten out alive. You didn't do anything to provoke them. You just...," he sighed weakly, "happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time."

The pale brows furrowed and Hutch glanced in Starsky's direction. "What did they use for the murder weapon?" he asked matter-of-factly.

It was only natural, Starsky told himself, that Hutch would want to know. But he really wished he didn't have to answer the question. Tuney had not looked for a murder weapon, as he hadn't known the killers' MO. But Newman had gone to the cabin and found it. Of course, he'd been sensible enough to not tell Starsky about it until they were outside of Hutch's room.

Starsky looked at the floor. "It was this... this...," he gestured vaguely, "some sort of customized thing. Like they made it themselves."

The taller man's voice firmed. "What kind of thing?"

The other exhaled heavily. "It was metal, sort of like a shovel. A spade. Only, it had three pairs of points going down the sides."

Hutch's gaze was back on the wall. "How big?"

"I don't know," Starsky said uncomfortably. "Maybe four inches across, maybe eight inches long."

Hutch barely shook his head. "Maybe I wouldn't even have felt it, I was so far gone."

Starsky didn't know what to say to that. After a moment, he offered hopefully, "Maybe none of the victims felt it. Maybe those creeps didn't care that their victims felt it. After all, you said they didn't seem particularly interested in you knowin' what they were going to do, how much they were plannin' to hurt you."

They dropped into silence and a minute passed. Then Hutch whispered, "If they hadn't gagged me, I would have begged for my life."

"Your life is worth begging for, Hutch."

The blond closed his eyes. "It didn't seem worth much of anything right then."

Starsky pressed his cheek against Hutch's shoulder, leaning his weight against him. "It's worth everything to me," he whispered. "Everything." Maybe it wasn't what Hutch needed to hear, but it was what Starsky needed to say. Such a thin line between life and death. One had to cherish the former before eventually succumbing to the latter. "I thought you were dead, Hutch." He hadn't meant to say that.

Hutch turned to look at him. "No picnic for you either, huh, pal?"

The curly-haired man shook his head against the shoulder. "Not between those fifteen seconds when I felt how cold you were and when I finally saw you breathin'."

Hutch's brows narrowed thoughtfully and Starsky raised his head, asking, "What?"

"You shot those men next to the cabin, right?"

Puzzled, Starsky nodded. "Yeah. Right near where you were."

Hutch's brows pulled closer together. "I don't remember it... hearing the shots. I remember your shoulder, resting my head on your shoulder -- only I didn't know it was you at the time -- but I didn't hear any gunfire."

Starsky closed his eyes, just now realizing how withdrawn, how close to death, Hutch had been.

"You haven't told me what the wedding was like."

Starsky opened his eyes and found his partner looking at him expectantly, the hint of a smile lighting his features. The question had been asked conversationally, as though they'd been speaking of domestic matters all evening.

And it was a relief to think about something else. Starsky grinned. "Ah, it was real nice, Hutch. He was handsome and she was beautiful. They seemed real fond of each other. Our mother cried. Her father cried."

Hutch made the barest noise of a laugh.

"She messed up only one of her lines. And he started to put the ring on the wrong finger, but... they got through it." Starsky nodded approvingly. "I think she's going to be real good for Nicky. Takin' care of her is gonna make him be a lot more responsible."

Something nagged at the back of Starsky's mind, and when he pinned it down, he tried to push it to one side.

"What else?" Hutch was looking at him curiously.

Starsky shrugged, glancing away. "Nothin' much. Everyone had a great time." Through the corner of his eye, he saw his partner tilt his head to one side, beckoningly.

He knew then that he wasn't going to be able to keep the thought to himself. And he knew it was something that was going to be a relief once it was out in the open, even though it didn't make sense. "You know," Starsky rubbed at the corner of his lip, "the really crazy thing with everything's that happened is," he sighed heavily, "well... I can't help but feel it's Nicky's fault."

Hutch's eyes widened. "Nicky's?"

"Yeah." Starsky shrugged uneasily. Then he gave in. "Ah, Hutch, it just really made me mad that he didn't invite you to the wedding."

The blond's expression was one of disbelief. "Starsky, I outright told him I didn't give a damn about him, when he visited a while back. It wouldn't have made sense for him to invite me." A heavy snort. "There's no love lost there. And, besides, weddings are for...," he finished lamely, "families."

Starsky seized the opportunity. "That's just it," he said earnestly. "We've been partners forever. It doesn't matter whether Nicky liked you personally or not. He should have recognized that I'm part of a package." Hutch started to speak, but Starsky wasn't finished. "Even our mom asked why you didn't come. I didn't want to make Nicky look bad, so I didn't tell her you weren't invited; I just said you weren't able to make it."

"Starsky, even if Nick would have invited me I wouldn't have come." Hutch snorted again. "I love your family dearly, pal, but being stuck in the car with your aunt and uncle for a cross country trip is not my idea of a vacation."

"I know," the curly-haired man acknowledged sheepishly, "but you could have taken a plane and met us there. And then," his voice lowered, "you know, none of this would have happened."

Hutch looked away. Then he looked back and pleaded, "Starsky, don't go blaming your brother for the crimes of two of the lowest forms of slime ever to set foot on this earth."

"Can't help it," Starsky said stubbornly. Then he admitted, "I never said anything to Nicky about it. I figured there was no point and I didn't want to start an argument."

"Good," Hutch put in quickly, "because I wouldn't want to be the cause of any trouble between you two."

The smaller man shifted on the bed, and his hand came into contact with a fat plastic tube. He picked it up. "Lie down so I can put this on you."

The blond firmed his jaw. "I'm tired of lying down."

Starsky sighed. "Hutch, those sutures are still gonna be tender. And I'm gonna have to press a little to rub it in."

"Doesn't matter," Hutch insisted, his gaze back on the floor. "Go ahead."

"Okay," Starsky said dubiously. He drew a knee up on the bed and shifted a few inches so he could see Hutch's back. The sutures were thick, dark, and ugly; crisscrossing over the pale flesh in no particular pattern. Better get used to them, Starsky told himself. He squeezed long streams of ointment along the center of each row. Then he put the tube down, got on his knees and, as gently as possible, began to rub in the ointment. His fingers moved in a circular fashion, applying as little pressure as possible.

Hutch bent forward a few inches, as though trying to escape the resulting pain, his shoulders tightening.

Starsky moved faster. As he worked, he noted that not all of the cuts had stitches. Some were shallow enough that the doctors had used butterfly bandages to pull the flesh together. He decided against removing those.

"What does it look like?" Hutch asked.

"Well, there's lots of them," Starsky said, not sure what kind of description the other was looking for. "Your whole back is pretty much covered."

Quietly, the blond said, "Maybe I'll have to get plastic surgery, huh?"

Starsky shrugged while continuing to massage in the ointment. "I suppose that's always an option if you want it."

"Every time I take off my shirt... at the station, at the gym... people will see and wonder."

Starsky was relieved to be down to the last row. "I imagine so. But, at the same time, it's not like they'd say anything."

Hutch was silent while Starsky straightened and put the lid back on the tube. "All done. I'm not going to put the bandage back on, so the stitches can breathe a little. But you probably need a t-shirt or something to protect them."

The blond was contemplative. "The rumor will get out about those men and what happened... and people are going to assume I was raped, just like the other victims."

Starsky closed his eyes. He knew Hutch was right. People talked and there was nothing anyone could do about it. And the facts would get distorted with each telling.

Hutch shook his head, still looking at the floor. "I don't really even care," he said in a tone of subdued surprise.

Starsky doubted his partner would feel that nonchalant as time went on; but he was relieved the other didn't seem to be interested in making an issue of it right now.

The taller man grunted, "It's ironic, isn't it?" He looked at his partner. "After what I wanted to do with you -- share with you -- it almost happened to me?"

Starsky blinked, hoping he was misunderstanding. "Wha'?"

"I wanted it so bad," the other replied with impatience, as though annoyed that he had to explain. "I wanted it... and I almost got it."

No. Starsky scrambled to his feet, feeling something twist inside. "What are you saying?" he demanded. Then he gestured with his hands and stammered, "You think -- you think that I think for one minute that what you wanted us to do together has anything to do with what they were going to do?" His voice rose with each word.

Hutch merely looked up at him, not speaking.

Starsky turned away in exasperation. "God almighty, Hutch." Then he turned back. "After all our years on the job, don't you know by now that rape doesn't have a goddamn thing to do with love?" Again, his voice was rising. "Those men wanted to hurt you, violate you. How can you possibly talk about those two things in the same breath!" He was almost shouting, breathing hard, and he fought for a sense of calm. Of all things to be yelling at Hutch about....

But the blond didn't react, other than looking slightly meek. "I didn't mean it that way."

The shorter man blinked. "How did you mean it?"

The other appeared thoughtful. Then, in the same quiet tone, "I guess I feel like maybe I deserved what they were going to do."

Starsky resisted the urge to throw up his hands. It wasn't Hutch's fault. His partner had been the victim of a very brutal crime... of which the emotional consequences were far greater than the physical. And he knew a few things about the mental torment victims went through. It was wrong of him to expect Hutch to be immune to those same reactive patterns.

But he couldn't say nothing. "You didn't deserve it, Hutch," he pointed out softly. "You didn't deserve to be raped and you didn't deserve to die. You didn't deserve to get kicked in the nuts and you didn't deserve to have your back torn to bits."

In a quiet, helpless tone, Hutch said, "I know." He was looking at the floor.

Starsky's voice thickened. "And you didn't deserve to feel that nobody was gonna come for you."

Hutch winced. And for a long time neither man spoke.

Starsky stretched his arms behind him, leaning back against a chest of drawers. It was getting late. He felt drained, and Hutch surely felt doubly so. But leaving the apartment was definitely out of the question. And even the sofa seemed to exist across a vast chasm. "Want me to sleep with you?" He suddenly realized, after what they'd just been talking about, how Hutch might take it. "I mean -- "

"I know what you mean," Hutch interrupted with a voice that carried a hint of amusement. He looked up, eyes bright with sincerity. "I'm okay, Starsk."

Starsky considered the answer. "Since you didn't say 'No' I'll take that as a 'Yes'."

Hutch didn't respond.

The shorter man pulled his shirt over his head. "You better put a top of some sort over your back."

Hutch stood and moved to the dresser, Starsky stepping to one side. The blond made a motion of flexing his muscles and said, "That ointment makes it feel better. It's not as sore."

"Yeah," Starsky said, pulling off his shoes while using a hand against the wall for balance, "but once the anesthetic effect wears off you'll probably need the pills that the Doc prescribed."

The blond shrugged. "I want to try it first without the pills." He pulled open a drawer and took out a t-shirt. He inserted his arms through the bottom of it. But as soon as he started to raise his arms over his head, he froze and clenched his teeth.

Starsky moved to his side. "Here, let me help." He took the shirt from Hutch and pulled and stretched the fabric every which way. He didn't stop until there was very little shape left. He then held it before his partner. "Let's get it over your head first." He was certain that Hutch didn't like being unable to dress himself, but was also relieved that the taller man seemed to accept his limitations.

Hutch tolerated it while Starsky slipped the shirt over his head. "One arm at a time," the darker man said as Hutch bent his left elbow to insert his arm from beneath the fabric. "Don't try to put your arm through; let me work the shirt down over it."

It seemed to take a long time before the shirt was in place, but it was worth it for Starsky to spare Hutch additional pain. Silently, the blond started working with his jeans, and Starsky turned away to finish his own undressing.

Down to briefs and an undershirt, Starsky gestured to the bed. "Want me on this side?"

Hutch nodded, moving into the main area of the apartment to switch off lights. He, too, was in white underclothes.

Starsky pulled back the covers, thinking it odd that Hutch had never gotten anything larger than a double bed. As he moved between the sheets, he tried to think back to the last time they had slept together. They'd never done it here, at Venice Place. But there had been a time or two at the cottage and quite a few occasions at his own apartment. He decided the last time must have been after Hutch rescued him from Simon's followers. It had been one of those occasions when fear and a feeling of vulnerability had persisted, even though he'd known rationally that he was quite safe from further harm.

The apartment was dark and Starsky listened to Hutch's bare feet as the taller man approached the bed. "Leave any room for me?" the blond asked as the mattress rattled with his weight.

"Little bit," Starsky replied off-handedly, surprised that the other was trying to joke. He turned on his side toward Hutch, and there was the unavoidable brushing of limbs as the blond got settled. Between his ribs and his back, Hutch really didn't have much choice but to face his partner.

Starsky reached out, found an arm, then traced it down until he was able to place Hutch's hand in his. He squeezed it and waited for the answering pressure.

There was none.

Starsky released the hand and moved up to a shoulder. There, he squeezed again and noted the stiffness that was at odds with the intent to rest. He massaged it with a thumb for a while. Then he gently ventured, "Can't stop thinking about it?"

There was a swallow, but no answer. Starsky let his hand drop until it rested on an arm, but otherwise he didn't persist. Perhaps Hutch found the contact more distracting than soothing. And, truth be told, Starsky wasn't adverse to the idea of getting some genuine shuteye. He'd spent the last two nights in the hospital in Independence, most of that time trying to sleep in an unaccommodating chair.

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, feeling himself relax.

"Starsk?" The whispered word was hesitant.

"Hm?" Starsky's fingers began to massage again.

Hutch's voice was strained. "I gave up."

"Huh? What do you mean?"

"I gave up." The soft voice was full of regret. "I gave up fighting... to stay alive... to get away. I gave up."

"Hutch, you couldn't fight."

"I didn't even try. I let them... do what they wanted."

The curly-haired man got on an elbow. "For God's sakes, Hutch, they shoved a gun in your mouth! What the hell were you supposed to do? Make a move and get killed?" There wasn't an immediate response, so Starsky went on earnestly. "If Hutch makes a move, Hutch gets killed. Starsky arrives and it's too late. Nothing Starsky can do to bring Hutch back. It's over. No second chances. Hutch cooperates -- like they always teach us to do -- and Hutch goes through hell but Hutch is still alive when Starsky comes. Bottom line: Hutch is alive. I can't be sorry for that."

"I know," Hutch relented in a small voice. Then a bitter snort. "How many medals have we gotten for bravery, valor, things like that? I wasn't brave." Harshly now. "I wasn't brave at all. I literally had the piss scared out of me. I couldn't do anything but... hang there, let them do what they wanted."

"Jesus, Hutch, you had no choice!"

"I remember," the blond went on, though his voice was quieter now, "after you cut me down, took me inside the cabin. I thought you were them. There were a few minutes when you went to the phone, when I could have gotten up and run... escaped." Starsky could see him shake his head vehemently in the darkness. "But I didn't. I didn't."

Starsky found a hand, cradled it in both of his. With gentle intensity, he said, "Hutch, listen to me. This is real important. I was on the phone less than a minute. That's all. And, Hutch," his voice became more earnest with the desire to make the other believe, "you had a strong case of hypothermia. I was talkin' to one of the nurses about how cold you were when I found you, and she said your system was shutting down because it was trying to conserve heat, trying to save itself. Your circulation and everything had all slowed down, so you were incapable of reacting. Your body just downright wasn't able to. "

Hutch didn't say anything for a long time. Then he asked, "How long was I captive?"

As before, Starsky could understand the other wanting all the details. "You said you stopped fishin' about three o'clock. I probably got there about six, six-thirty. So, they had you between three and four hours."

There was a harsh snort across the miniature chasm between them. "It's a wonder they didn't finish with me in that time. I wonder how long it would have been before they decided to stick their filthy dicks into me."

"I don't know, Hutch. As much damage as they did, your back doesn't look as bad as those other three victims. I guess, being out in the wilderness like that, they weren't in a big hurry." He had to ignore the urge to reach around Hutch's back and draw him close. The next ten days, before sutures were removed, were going to be a challenge.

Hutch inched closer, however. Then his hand carefully went around Starsky's back, pulling the other near.

Starsky readily obeyed, and Hutch didn't stop applying pressure until Starsky was pressed against him, his face against the blond's chest.

With firm, deep strokes, Hutch's hand began to pet up and down Starsky's back, massaging firmly.

The motion was so intense that it almost qualified as foreplay. And, for a moment, Starsky wondered if their closeness had triggered the passion that Hutch had revealed a few months back. But then he realized that it was highly unlikely that Hutch was feeling any virility at all. There were too many physical and emotional road blocks.

Hutch's other hand went to Starsky's head, rubbing at his scalp, pulling his head closer, embracing it, almost smothering him. Starsky wondered if these actions were because Hutch was trying to express gratitude, or if the blond desperately needed to cling. Or if he had a need of his own to give something of his self.

Whatever the reason, Starsky let it continue. He felt loved and cradled and cherished, even though the friction of the hands against his back and head was making him feel a little too warm.

He exhaled heavily against the cotton shirt, trying to breathe, and the grip around his head relaxed slightly. He turned his face up to take in air, leaving his cheek resting against Hutch's chest.

The hand on his back slowed, as well, until the fingertips were just a light trickle up and down his shirt.

"You gonna be able to sleep?" Starsky finally asked.

"I think," came the soft reply. "If you stay close."

Starsky settled more comfortably against the other's body. "Not goin' nowhere."

He felt Hutch rest a cheek against his hair. Then the fingers finally stopped. Hutch put an arm loosely around his waist and, finally, the blond's whole body relaxed.

Hutch's breath tickled his hair. But Starsky didn't say anything. After a time, he felt the other's breathing even out. And then he was able to close his own eyes and sleep.

* * *

"I'm home," Starsky announced to his apartment. It was Thursday, his first day back from vacation, and it had seemed like a long, boring day at the station, getting caught up on what was going on with various cases. Thankfully, one case in particular had the lid closed on it, though the two men responsible still remained unidentified and no one knew their motive.

For the first time since leaving for New York, he was going to sleep at home. Other than stopping by once the past few days to water his plants and pick up his mail, Starsky had spent the rest of his vacation days with Hutch. This morning, the blond had said it wasn't necessary for him to return to Venice Place after work. Though Hutch had continued to sleep with him pressed close, the sense of urgency in the gesture had gradually decreased. Starsky did call once from the squad room during the day to check on his partner, and Hutch had complained about being bored and wanting to go back to work. But Starsky had gotten Dobey to agree that with all the sutures, Hutch would have to be bound to a desk, and that would make him more irritable still. And given the loss of blood, he was still likely to tire quickly. The agreement was he could come back part time once the stitches were removed.

Starsky watered his plants, then looked into the refrigerator to take inventory, since a trip to the grocery store was next on the agenda. When he closed the refrigerator door, he found a partially-naked calendar confronting him.

Starsky gazed at it, noting that the last box with an "X" was the day before he'd left for vacation. Two and a half weeks had passed since then. He reached to the kitchen counter and picked up a marker and began crossing off the subsequent days that had gone by.

It still rankled him, what Hutch had said. Despite the blond's protest that he "didn't mean it like that", Starsky still felt the sting that Hutch had linked together the atrocities committed by those men with what Hutch had wanted for them. In truth, Starsky was just as surprised by the vehemence of his own reaction.

Well, this whole thing hadn't been easy on him, either. Despite his annoyance with Nicky, which still persisted in the back of his mind, Starsky was also aware of a layer of guilt more at forefront. He knew there was no rationale to it, but it was there, nevertheless. He'd gone off and left Hutch, and he shouldn't have. Whether it was healthy or not, the fact was they had a certain interdependence that they each counted on for survival. Even while in New York, Starsky had had the persistent urge to introduce everyone to his partner. Hell, even on the trip out, he would make some comment about a landmark or unique picture of a landscape, and he would be surprised when it was the voice of his aunt or uncle which responded. He kept getting reminded that Hutch wasn't there.

And if Hutch were to be permanently removed...? Starsky had been shying away from that thought all along, for Hutch's concerns had been more important. But now his own questions faced him head-on: If he hadn't come back early... if he'd been only an hour or two later....

A chill swept through him. He couldn't let that happen. Could never let it happen. He should have told Nicky they both were coming, or neither of them were coming. In fact, he probably would have if Hutch had shown the slightest indication of having wanted to accompany him to New York. But Hutch hadn't seemed the least bit interested, so Starsky hadn't even bothered asking when he first brought it up in the squad room. In the entire eight years of their partnership they had never been separated for so long a time. Even when Hutch's uncle had died, the blond had gone back to Minnesota only for the few days necessary to attend the funeral. Then he was back at his partner's side.

The last "X" was in place, marking today. Starsky didn't know exactly how many days had gone by since that night when Hutch had spilled his guts, revealing a passion that even Starsky himself hadn't been aware of.

Which was exactly why Starsky felt so certain that Hutch's desires were misplaced. Out of the blue, his partner had decided the answer to all his heartaches was to join with his partner in the most intimate way possible.

Starsky grunted, turning away from the refrigerator. He wasn't sure how much more intimate they could get than they had been the past few nights. Hutch holding him so close, finding comfort in his nearness. Sure, they could insert body part A into body slot B, but he didn't see how that could make them feel any closer to each other. With women, of course, it was different. With women, at least the casual acquaintances, the whole point was to insert body part A into body slot B.

Starsky paused on his way toward the door, looking back over his shoulder at the calendar, its rows of X's an illustration of his celibacy. He was more than ready to put his body part A into anybody's slot B.

And he wondered when his desire for the company of women would return.

* * *

Edith Dobey sat at the kitchen table, going through the mail. After reading through one particular letter, she turned toward her husband, who was trying to fix the light over the stove. "Harold, look at this."

Dobey gratefully straightened. "What is it?"

"The Woodlawn Bank is closing down. Why, we've been banking there for nearly a dozen years."

He looked over her shoulder, trying to read the letter. "When are they closing?"

"At the end of the month. It says all the customers need to withdraw their money and move their accounts elsewhere."

Dobey grunted, turning back to the stove. "I'll make a point of taking care of it later this month."

Edith put a hand to her mouth. "It's not just our bank accounts. We've got the kids' trust funds and our safety deposit box there."

More firmly, Dobey repeated, "I'll take care of it before the end of the month."

* * *

Hutch let himself into Starsky's apartment and shut the door behind him with one hand. In his other hand he carried a sack, and he took it into the outer bath area where the vanity was.

He wanted to come here after leaving the clinic not only because Starsky was meeting him after work, but also because this apartment had a much larger mirror than Hutch's apartment did.

The blond put the sack on the vanity, then quickly unbuttoned his shirt. Once opened, he carefully removed it, then reminded himself he wouldn't have to take quite so much care in the future. The stitches were gone less than an hour, and already he was feeling more like a human being than a rag doll.

The shirt cast aside, Hutch removed a square desktop mirror from the sack. He turned away from the vanity, his back to its mirror, then held the new mirror up at an angle. And looked into it.

Albino white meshed with pink stood out in numerous streaks against patches of pale skin. He moved back against the vanity, almost sitting on it, and peered closer into the hand mirror. The streaks were lumpy and textured. Gingerly, he reached behind him with one hand and felt along some of the scars. They did indeed feel fleshy. Ugly.

Hutch sighed. Then he turned and put the mirror on the vanity. He retrieved his shirt and slipped back into it, then slowly buttoned it.

He knew that, with time, the streaks would smooth, would not be quite so pronounced. But anyone looking at him would always know something dramatic had happened. He imagined himself in his bedroom with a date and removing his shirt. He imagined her gasp of horror. And no matter how sympathetic she might be after his explanation -- even if he prepared her before he disrobed -- he knew that she would find nothing pleasant in feeling those scars when her arms were around his back as he made love to her.

Hutch sighed, staring at the floor. It had been a while since he'd had much desire to make love to anybody. It hadn't seemed important for a long time. And now, he wasn't even capable.

Plastic surgery would cost a lot of money and he would have to pay for it himself. The LAPD's insurance wouldn't cover it, because it would be for cosmetic purposes only -- another reason that he didn't need to worry about it right now. If surgery seemed necessary down the line, he could always consider it then.

He moved away from the bath area to the kitchen. Opening the refrigerator revealed a full six pack and he tore the nearest can from its siblings. He popped the lid as he let the door close, wondering if he should indulge in the leftover deli salad he saw sitting on the middle shelf.

But the door had gently clicked shut and Hutch leaned back on the kitchen counter, enjoying the brew. He saw that Starsky had a cartoon attached to the front of the refrigerator, but he was too lazy to lean forward and read the caption.

His eyes drifted from the cartoon to the calendar that hung from a magnetic clip. An inspection of the heading revealed that it was actually turned to the correct month... something his partner often neglected to do with his desk calendar at work. Not only was it the correct month, but Starsky had kept up with crossing off the days. Each day of the month had an "X" over it, right up through yesterday.

Hutch's eyes narrowed. He could never remember his partner having the tendency to mark off days. Starsky must be counting down until something special was going to happen.

Intrigued, Hutch left his beer on the counter and moved to the calendar. He flipped it to the next month, then the next. Neither had a special day marked. He looked further along, eventually finding the notation "Mom's B-Day". The month after that he found "Hutch". It was marked on his birthday, but it didn't say "Hutch's B-Day", just "Hutch". For some reason, that made the blond smile.

But none of that explained what Starsky was counting down days for. Putting his detective instincts in gear, Hutch removed the calendar from its clip and started at January. No boxes had an "X" over them. He flipped to the next page, trying to find when the X's began.

When he found it, something began to churn inside. There was a sense of foreboding as he flipped through the calendar some more. The X's had begun some three months ago.

He knew what had happened then.

Hutch closed his eyes, his heart beating quickly, as he tried to understand the significance. Starsky wasn't counting down to something. He was counting each passing day from....

God, what did it mean? Was Starsky counting the days since Hutch had forced everything to change forever?

Except, things really hadn't changed. Nothing was different about them since that day. Things had gone on as before... unless Starsky had been misleading him....

Confusion, mixed with anger and disbelief, swirled within the blond's chest. What was Starsky up to? Why was he tracking this? What did it mean?

When had he intended to tell Hutch? Or did he ever intend to tell him?

Hutch looked up sharply as the door handle rattled. He was holding the calendar in trembling fingers and he had no intention of letting go. He wanted answers. Now.