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"All right, all right, all right!" Hutch hollered as the Minnesota Vikings moved within three yards of the New York Giants' goal line.
"Don't get excited, blondie," Starsky said from the other side of the sofa. He sipped his beer. "The Giants are gonna make a major goal line stand. And the Vikes aren't gonna get the ball back before the clock runs out."
"You're going to eat your words," Hutch vowed, hand delving into the large bowl of popcorn that rested between them. A few kernels dropped onto the couch, but he was unconcerned as he pushed the majority of the remaining ones into his mouth.
Eyes on the tube, Starsky snarled, "Ah, man, the Vikes called time out. What a bunch of wooses."
Hutch grunted triumphantly. "They're discussing where they're going to celebrate after the game. Face it, partner. One more play, and the Vikes are going to have the lead, and the clock's going to run out. And your stinking Giants are going to have to drag their tails back to New York in defeat."
"Care to up the bet to twenty bucks?"
Hutch glanced at him. "You're on."
Both men were silent as the teams returned to the field. The Vikings trailed by five with a minute left in the game, and no remaining time outs. On first down, the running back was tackled at the line of scrimmage.
Starsky pounded the sofa arm with a fist. "All right! Told ya."
"Just wait," Hutch noted smugly.
On second down, the pass was incomplete.
"Your Vikes are choking," Starsky said.
"They're just dragging out the victory." Then to the TV, Hutch yelled, "Come on, Kramer, kick their asses!"
On third down, the pass was dropped.
Starsky took his last swig of beer. "Time to pay up, partner. They've got four seconds left."
"It ain't over till it's over," Hutch said stubbornly, his voice a bit dry.
On fourth down, Tommy Kramer did a quarterback sneak and carried the ball past the goal line as the clock ran out.
Hutch shot a fist into the air. "Yahoo! All right! All right! Whew!"
Starsky muttered something beneath his breath.
Hutch looked at him with a triumphant smile. "Pay up, dirtball. Game's over."
Starsky was on his feet and began gathering up the remains of the evening's snacks from the coffee table. "That's disgusting. The Vikings were out-played the whole game, and then to win on a sneaky play like that...."
"Hey, all that matters is the score." Hutch handed Starsky his most recently emptied bottle as the curly-haired man passed him. He shook his head with admiration. "Tommy Kramer ain't no Fran Tarkenton, but he can play."
When Starsky returned from the kitchen, he punched off the television. "Don't need to sit and listen to Howard Cosell ponticate." He turned to wipe the coffee table with a dish rag.
Hutch rolled his eyes. "Pontificate," he corrected.
"So, how long do I have to wait for my winnings?" Hutch asked, stretching grandly.
"Whenever I get to the bank. I gave all my cash to Seedy this morning." What the snitch expected for measly bits of information amounted to highway robbery.
"Didn't the pet store give you anything for Louise?"
Starsky turned to see if Hutch were kidding. The guinea pig was sold retail for a mere two dollars, so Starsky's cut was even less than that. And, indeed, the blond's grin was smug.
The curly-haired man decided he could stand the ribbing. He straightened a few magazines on the coffee table. "Yeah, I told them they could keep the quarter." He listened to Hutch snicker. Then he turned around and grabbed the blond by the face with one hand, pinching the cheeks and lips together. "Don't worry, baby blue, you'll get your measly twenty bucks."
Hutch's eyes flared with anger and an arm snapped out, shoving Starsky's hand away. "Stop that."
Starsky's hand fell to his side. He straightened, mouth open in shock. "Wha'?"
Hutch closed his eyes and drew a deep breath, as though realizing he'd over reacted. Suddenly, he was on his feet, pacing away from the couch. "Don't ever grab my face like that."
Starsky blinked as he watched the tall form stride over to the nearest window. Confused, he replied, "Okay." Then waited.
After a moment, Hutch released a sigh. Then he bowed his head. "Sorry. It's just...."
Hutch turned around, shrugging sheepishly. "Vanessa used to grab my face like that. I've always hated it."
She'd been dead two weeks, and once Hutch had been cleared of all charges her name had not been mentioned.
Starsky sat down on the couch, picking at the scattered popcorn kernels. Gently, he asked, "Wanna talk about it?"
Hutch snorted with a forced smile. "About why I hated for her to grab me like that?"
The answering tone was even more gentle. "No. I meant...." Starsky trailed off, watching Hutch bow his head again, hands on the back of his belt. "Well, I mean," the darker man pursued carefully, "you really haven't said much about the whole incident."
The nervous grinding of a toe against the carpet revealed that Hutch was fully aware of the truth of Starsky's words.
"Want another beer?" Starsky offered.
Hutch looked like he was considering it, then shook his head. "Think I've had enough."
Starsky decided he'd better refrain from another, as well. Instead he straightened on the couch, drawing a knee up, resting an elbow on the back of the sofa. Gently, he noted, "I know that, for something like this, you gotta have some feelings about it."
Hutch slowly turned around, briefly shook his head. "There's not a lot to say, partner. I loved her and I hated her." He looked away. "I think that about covers it."
Starsky felt a protective tenderness rise up through his chest. He rested his chin on his arm. "I bet she still loved you, too."
A snort answered him. Hutch was looking back out the window. This time the shake of the blond head was more emphatic. "She claimed she did, but it was just another ploy of hers... another way to try to manipulate me." His voice softened. "I didn't believe her at first, but...." His head bowed again.
"Well," Starsky said casually, "she surely didn't hate you. I mean, why else -- "
Hutch turned around and his teeth were clenched. "She left me. That wasn't motivated by love."
Starsky looked down. All the pain was there, as raw as when it had first happened. He and Hutch had been a year into their partnership when Vanessa and Hutch got divorced. What a stormy year it had been... for all three of them. And Hutch had, without a doubt, been the most injured party of all. For he had believed all that romanticism about finding someone special, marrying them, and living happily ever after.
Starsky drew a deep breath. He wanted to keep Hutch talking. Surely the blond needed the release. And, besides, Starsky had a few questions of his own. "Why did she want to see you?"
The other bit his lower lip and wandered closer to the couch, his hands stuck in the back pockets of his jeans. "I don't know. I haven't been able to figure that one out for sure." He glanced up thoughtfully. "It could be the things she was saying -- that she was in on something big and was offering me to be a part of it." A pause. "But it doesn't make sense that she would suddenly want to be partners with me." He shrugged. "Maybe she just felt safer trying to hide that stone at a cop's house."
Starsky was thoughtful a long moment, wondering if he should reveal what he knew. He decided it wouldn't hurt Hutch to know... in fact, it might even help his reticent partner open up a bit. "You know, Hutch," he said carefully, "right after you were put on suspension, I followed those two goons from IA around."
"Yeah?" Hutch prompted.
"Well," Starsky took a deep breath, "one of the first things they did was go to Huggy's and interview everyone that had seen you and Vanessa together that night."
Hutch had paced a few steps around the sofa. "And?"
The smaller detective shrugged, wishing he didn't have to spell it out. "Well, I hung around there, too. And, so, I more or less heard what everyone told them." Hutch gazed at him with a hard jaw, but didn't speak. Fearing his partner still wasn't getting the point, Starsky gently said, "Sounds like you and she had quite a fight. I mean," he swallowed, "everyone fights with their ex, but...," heavy sigh, "it sure didn't take you two long to get each other's blood boiling." Watching Hutch frown, Starsky tenderly offered, "Want to talk about it?"
Hutch leaned against the back of the sofa and ran both hands through his hair. "After all this time," he said, dropping his hands, "she still knew how to push the buttons." A pitiful snort. "I guess I knew how to push hers, too."
There was more silence, and Starsky quietly prompted, "What did she want, Hutch?"
The blond held up his hands in a helpless gesture. "I don't know, Starsk. She tried to tell me she still loved me...," he trailed off, then his voice hardened, "but I knew better than to fall for that." A pause. "I tried to walk away, told her to stay out of my life, because all we did was hurt each other. And then she followed me out, started in with her whining about having to go in for a... biopsy." A bitter laugh. "That one I did fall for."
"Jesus, Hutch, you could hardly not believe her. Biopsies are pretty serious stuff, considering what they can mean."
Hutch stared at the wall a long moment. Then, softly, "After I got her home, I started warming up to her a little bit. Started... remembering that everything hadn't always been bad, not all the time."
Starsky could imagine the scenario and smiled gently. "I'd think that would be perfectly natural. A beautiful woman like her... all those old times to fall back on."
Hutch looked at him. In a strained whisper the blond said, "I didn't sleep with her, Starsk. She wanted me to, but that was the one thing I wasn't going to give her." A pale brow furrowed as his gaze switched to the floor. "And now I'm sorry. It was the last night of her life and she deserved...." He swallowed thickly.
Starsky straightened. The confession did, indeed, surprise him. He couldn't imagine any healthy man being with a woman as willing and as beautiful as Vanessa and turning her down. But his concern at the moment was for his partner's feelings. "Ah, Hutch, you had no way of knowin' that. And, besides, how good could it have been, with all that bad stuff that had gone on between you?"
Hutch shook his head, as though he didn't have an answer. Then, after a moment, he said, "I loved her so much, Starsky... back then."
The darker man moved next to his partner, leaning back against the sofa as the other was. "I know you did," he said gently. "But I also remember how much she hurt you, Hutch. I mean, we both know that I don't have any experience when it comes to divorce -- no one in my family has ever gotten divorced -- but I saw you hurting, day after day, tryin' to please her and still be a good cop. And nothing you did -- or tried to work out -- was ever good enough for her. That wasn't your fault, Hutch."
Hutch slowly moved farther back on the sofa, so that he was actually sitting on the back of it. He closed his eyes a long moment; then, voice unsteady, he said, "I don't think she ever loved me, Starsk. Not really."
It hurt to hear the pain in the other's tone. But Starsky knew there was no place for his own feelings at the moment. There was only Hutch's. He angled away from his partner so he could look at his face. "How can you say that?" he asked in an incredulous whisper. "She married you, didn't she? Surely it wasn't because she thought you could make her richer than she already was."
There was a thoughtful pause, then the blond's jaw firmed. "She thought I was handsome," he finally replied. "And intelligent." A brief pause. "I came in the right package that she thought a husband should come in." He shook his head, voice a mixture of anger and sadness. "Only, she was never interested in opening the package. She never cared about what was inside." A long pause, then a defeated, "She only loved the exterior, Starsk. She never knew who I was. Or cared."
Starsky closed his eyes, the hurt increasing. He opened them when he heard an amused snort.
Hutch pushed away from the sofa. "How did we get on the subject, anyway?" he asked with a forced smile.
Starsky could understand his partner's desire to lighten the mood. He allowed his own mouth corner to twitch, while reminding, "You didn't like how I grabbed your face."
"Oh." The blond shook his head with a bashful smile. "She always made me feel like a child when she did that. It didn't matter how many times I told her not to do it... she still did." His expression grew distant. "She even did it that last night." He waved a hand. "I didn't bother reminding her how much I hated it." His head tilted to one side, frowning. "I'll never understand how I stayed with her all those years. Why I bothered."
"Maybe," Starsky said, "it was because you believed in the vow you made."
The expression softened. "Yeah, I guess so." Then, "If she hadn't filed for divorce, we'd probably still be married... and hating every minute of it." His voice dropped an octave. "Assuming we wouldn't have killed each other first." Hutch hesitated, working with a thumbnail while standing in the middle of the living room. "It scared me so much, the idea of being without her. It was like having the Earth yanked from beneath my feet. It was like everything I believed in suddenly disintegrated. It was like my whole life was a failure."
"I know," Starsky said quietly. He, too, was on his feet, his arms crossed. He reminded, "You got your life together just fine, Hutch. You never needed her. If anything, she held you back, because you had so much guilt about the time you dedicated to the job."
The other nodded, but it was a feeble gesture, as though he didn't really believe what Starsky had said.
The smaller man moved over to where Hutch was. He came up behind him and put his arms around the tall form.
Hutch chuckled self-consciously, then twisted away from the embrace. "I'm okay," he said, turning to face the other.
"Hey," Starsky said in a scolding tone, "this is me. You know, the one who loves you unconditionally? The one who tore open the packaging before noticing how pretty it was? The one who's always gonna be there? The one who wants to be there?"
The blond bowed his head, his bashfulness now evident in the form of a smile. "Yeah," he admitted, reaching to squeeze Starsky's shoulder.
Starsky capitalized on his advantage, drawing Hutch close and wrapping his arms back around him. Hutch made the soft chuckling noise again, but he returned the embrace, though not squeezing as tight.
Starsky stroked up and down the long back. "Ah, Hutch, I'm sorry it all ended up like this. I had a real bad feelin' when she called."
"So did I. But what could I do? I could hardly refuse to see her."
"I know," Starsky said sorrowfully, one hand reaching to scratch at his partner's hairline. "I love ya, ya big blondie." He regretted that his voice carried a tone of finality, for now Hutch pulled back slightly.
The blond's hands remained on Starsky's shoulders, and the fingers squeezed when he spoke. "You're the one who's always stuck with me," he noted in a soft tone. "Everyone else leaves when they find out that who I am on the inside isn't what they really wanted."
Starsky blinked, uncertain of what to say to that. He brushed a thumb along the pale chin. "It's their loss."
Hutch's head bowed. "Yeah, yeah, yeah," he said in a tone that indicated he didn't believe the words.
The smaller man put his hands on Hutch's shoulders. "And my gain," he noted firmly. "If you got married again, who would I have to watch Monday Night Football with?"
"Right," Hutch agreed good-naturedly.
They were silent for a moment, leaning toward each other, hands on each other's shoulders. Then Hutch whispered, "You're lucky, pal, that you never got married. Because," he forced a swallow, "when it all falls apart, the...," he hesitated, "the hurt... it -- it seems to destroy all the good memories."
Starsky closed his eyes, wanting to offer something more reassuring. "It doesn't have to end up that way, Hutch."
Gently, the blond asked, "Who are you to talk?" He brushed a finger down Starsky's nose to take the sting out of the words.
The other pulled back, feigning offense. With his hands behind his back, he gave Hutch an up-and-down look, then said, "Well, personally, partner, I think I have a great deal of experience to speak from. Six years' worth, anyway."
Hutch presented a tight, emotion-filled grin and looked away. "Yeah." Then he met his partner's eye. "This is the most successful relationship I've ever had -- by far. What does that say about us, huh?"
"It says we love each other a whole lot, packages be damned." Starsky's voice softened because there was something very important he wanted to say. "You've always been there for me, especially when it mattered most. And...," he trailed off, uncertain of how to say what he felt, how to make the point he needed to make. He decided, instead, to go to the bottom line. "I'll never leave you, Hutch. Never. Not ever."
The smile became pained. "That's the same vow Vanessa and I made to each other -- in front of the congregation."
Starsky felt frustrated with the way Hutch had deflected what he said. "So, what does that mean?" he asked seriously. "Because Vanessa couldn't live up to it, vows are never to be believed?"
The blond head shook. "I didn't mean it like that. I believe in you, buddy." Now the eyes lowered. "You're the best thing that ever happened to me, you know."
"And don't you forget it."
A genuine smile now. "I won't." Hutch moved around the sofa to get his shoes. "Think I'd better go," he said as he sat down in preparation to put them on.
"How come?" Starsky wondered, uncomfortable with the way Hutch had made the sudden decision. "Why don't you just sack out here? We've both had quite a bit to drink, pal."
"Feel like I need to be alone," Hutch said quietly, but he had stopped fussing with the shoes.
Starsky came behind him, put his hand on the other's hair. "There'll be plenty of time later for that," he noted.
Hutch's shoulders slumped, defeated. "Yeah." Then he admitted, "There's already been too much time."
"Been thinkin' about Vanessa a lot, huh?"
Shoulders shrugged as the blond gazed at the carpet. "Yeah. About Vanessa. About me. About what I used to want. About what I want now. About death. About life. About...," he trailed off, then looked up at Starsky. "About us. About how you're the only thing in my life that hasn't fallen apart."
Starsky was warmed, but said, "Humph. Don't know if I care too much for being considered a 'thing'."
Hutch smiled again. "If the shoe fits...."
Starsky smacked his hand along the golden hair. "One thing hasn't changed about you, that's for sure. You're still a smart-ass."
"And your stinkin' Giants still aren't worth a damn." Hutch settled back on the couch. "Yeah, guess I'd better stay, make sure I get my money."
Starsky made a face, but inside felt relief. He wondered if Hutch was truly okay about Vanessa, then decided it was a stupid thought. Hutch probably wouldn't be okay about her for a long, long time. Maybe would never be entirely okay about her, just as he himself would never feel completely at peace about what had happened to Terry because of him.
Starsky stretched elaborately, then said, "I'm turnin' in. I'll get you a blanket."
Being alive in and of itself created scars, he decided. They couldn't be avoided, only dealt with. And dealing with those things were so much easier when you had someone who understood to share them with.
As long as the person who understood was always there.
Starsky took a blanket from the linen closet and began turning off lights. He could hear soft noises of his partner undressing.
The apartment was dark when he returned to the sofa, dropping a blanket into the shadow of the arms that reached for it. He was about to turn away, but had the feeling that something was unfinished, something left unsaid. He hesitated, then settled a hip on the back of the sofa. "Hutch?" he inquired softly.
There were noises of the other settling against the cushions. "Hm?"
"I'm always gonna be there, pal. Always."
He could sense a smile, for a soft voice replied, "Yeah. Same here."
"The packaging never mattered."
It was probably enough, but after a moment's silence Starsky still couldn't bring himself to move. "You know, I've always...," he swallowed, "well, I've always loved what's inside. A whole lot." Another pause, then, "You can't ever make me not love it, Hutch." Inwardly, he cringed, imagining what Hutch might say: Vanessa and I thought that, too. Quickly, but even more softly, Starsky noted, "You and I... we've never needed vows."
He felt a hand fumble along his sleeve. Once settled upon his forearm, the fingers squeezed. Hutch whispered, "I know, pal. I love you, too."
Starsky felt something warm and full make its way through his chest.
They fell silent, and Starsky took the moment to take Hutch's hand, entwine their fingers. Neither seemed to have anything else to say.
Maybe, Starsky decided, it was enough. He squeezed the hand, then released it. "See you in the morning, huh?"
Starsky turned toward the bedroom, the warmth receding with each step.
And then he knew why Hutch would always be the one who mattered most.