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There was the barest hint of a shift, and Hutch felt cold air touch his chest. The unpleasant sensation made him move back closer to the warmth, and the throb in his head told him that waking up would be an unpleasant experience. Instead, he breathed deeply, trying to recapture the bliss of slumber, but realized his exhaled breath was hitting something a little too near, making him feel smothered.
Reluctantly, Hutch opened his eyes. A dark mass of curls was just below his nose. Warm breath was exhaling against the cotton of his t-shirt. Both of them were fully dressed.
Hutch closed his eyes, the night's pain coming back to him. They had drank, played Monopoly, opened gifts, and drank some more. Eventually, the liquor did its job and the tears came. Though barely more coordinated than his partner, Hutch had guided Starsky to bed. They curled up together on top of the covers, Starsky sobbing against Hutch's chest. The blond didn't know which of them had fallen asleep first.
What he did know was that, finally, the tears had been raw grief. All prior emotion over Terry's death had been dominated by anger. But Crazy George Prudholm was once again put away. Now healing could begin.
Starsky moved his head, making an incoherent noise, and Hutch knew his breath was tickling the mass of hair. He pulled back, easing his hold in preparation to separate from his partner, but Starsky made a grunt of protest.
Hutch froze, abandoning the idea, at least for the moment. His bladder was close to bursting and he tried not to think about it. Plus, the early morning air coming through an open window contained a nip that discouraged separation.
Starsky had hunched his body lower against Hutch's torso, so that his hair was free of being tickled. With his eyes closed, he tilted his head back slightly so that his own exhalation brushed against the lower part of Hutch's face.
The blond fought to keep from reacting. The air coming from Starsky stunk like morning breath mixed with stale beer. He turned his own face away.
The motion caused a slight shift in his body. Starsky once again murmured a protest.
His bladder wasn't going to wait. Hutch pushed gently yet firmly at the body against him. "Starsk," he whispered, "I gotta move."
"Uh-uh," came the whimpered reply.
"I have to."
Starsky snuggled closer against him. "Too cold," he complained in a barely audible whisper.
"Then get under the covers and I'll close the window." With a heavy sigh, Hutch reluctantly ignored Starsky's murmured protests and hoisted himself from the bed. He pulled the covers away. "Come on, Starsk," he tugged at the other's shirt sleeve, "get under the covers."
Starsky wrinkled his nose and made a face without opening his eyes. "You got bad breath," he complained.
"So do you," Hutch told him. "Come on, get under the covers."
Eyes still closed, Starsky crawled in the direction Hutch pulled him. A moment later he was under the blankets. Hutch tucked them around him, quickly closed the window then rushed to the john.
After relieving himself, he took some aspirin, then showered. Wrapping himself in the robe he kept there, he found the toothbrush he also kept in the medicine cabinet. Hanging from the toothbrush holders were two others. One, he knew, was Starsky's. The other, he supposed, was Terry's.
He wondered if he should throw it away. But that wasn't a decision for him to make. He got out the toothpaste and focused on the task before him.
After rinsing, he filled the glass with more water and took it and a pair of aspirin into the bedroom. He sat on the edge of the mattress, nudging his partner. "Starsk?"
"Hm?" The eyes wouldn't open.
"Starsky, wake up a sec. I've got something for you."
Hutch felt his patience growing thin, for the aspirin he'd taken wasn't working on his own headache yet. Firmly, he said, "Starsky, come on."
"Why?" A simple question.
"You need to swallow these."
The lids fluttered open, then squeezed shut with a protesting whimper.
"Raise up a sec."
Eyes squinted, Starsky barely hoisted himself onto an elbow.
"Open your mouth."
The jaw fell open.
"Stick out your tongue."
Moist flesh jutted out.
Carefully, Hutch took the two tablets and placed them as far back as he could reach without scraping his fingers on teeth. "Don't swallow yet."
He changed the glass of water to his other hand. "Here," he said, placing the glass against the dry, cracked lower lip.
Eyes still barely open, Starsky put a hand on top of Hutch's and closed his mouth while, together, they tipped the glass. The darker man swallowed with a great deal of difficulty.
"More?" Hutch asked.
Starsky nodded and swallowed a couple more times. Then he lay back with a sigh while Hutch put the glass on the nightstand.
"Go ahead and sleep," the blond said gently, patting Starsky's shoulder. He tucked the covers more firmly around the already-still form and left the room, closing the bedroom door.
Hutch sighed, surveying the mess before him. The living room wasn't in all that bad a shape, but the kitchen and dining areas were a mess. The candles had burned down to puddles of wax. The Monopoly board was still on the floor, colorful play money and property cards spread about its vicinity. The beer bottles seemed endless.
He started with those, careful not to clank them together while he picked them up and put them in the trash, a task which required numerous trips. But not all those bottles were from last night. Some, Hutch knew, were from Starsky's having tried to escape his sorrows on prior evenings. Thankfully, the corner was turned last night, and his partner would no longer need alcohol to bear his pain.
Of course, there would continue to be pain. But, now, it was hopefully on a more manageable level.
Like his own concerning Gillian.
Hutch had been leaning against the counter after downing a glass of orange juice. Now, he closed his eyes and slid to the floor, trying to force away the regret, the guilt, the ache.
What an awful trait for him and Starsky to share: cherished women dying merely for being in love with them.
Hutch swallowed thickly and looked away. His eyes fell on the Monopoly board. He wondered who won. The money was too mingled to give any evidence as to the victor.
Maybe they never completed the game.
He sighed out loud this time, then reached to the pile of paper, trying to pick the bills up in an orderly fashion. He collected all the $500 bills first, putting them in their "bank" bin; then the $100 bills, then the $50's ....
He wondered if he were foolish for trying to put the game back in its box correctly, for he doubted they would ever play again. It held too many memories.
Though, of course, it would be a shame to put 1000 Ways to Win Monopoly to waste.
Hutch snorted as he now began collecting the property cards, not concerned about the order they were in. The book seemed a silly gift to get Starsky, something hardly appropriate for a final farewell. It seemed almost as though Terry were relegating their relationship to all those shared games.
Hesitantly, Hutch looked up toward the countertop. The aspirin was working and he was able to focus on the dirty-white, furry form that rested there. He'd been honored with the important gift, the one which meant something. And an even more meaningful note... something she had not left for Starsky.
Hutch tilted his head thoughtfully, then pushed to his feet. He picked up the note, wondering if it would be as poignant in the sober light of day.
To you I entrust Ollie and Dave. Please love them both. Don't let either one of them change.
The words still warmed him. But as Hutch knelt and put the lid over the Monopoly box, he silently questioned whether Starsky was Terry's to give. Starsky's well-being had been entrusted to him the moment they became partners, as well as vice-versa.
He took the Monopoly game to the closet, placing it on the top shelf. There were noises from the bedroom that meant Starsky was getting up. When Hutch turned back to the counter, he felt uneasy seeing Ollie still sitting there, not knowing what kind of emotion the bear would evoke from his partner. Hearing the shower start, he took the bear and quietly slipped out the door. He placed Ollie and the note in the front seat of the LTD.
When he came back, he picked up the papers on the floor that were beneath the candles, and that were now hard with puddles of wax, and put them in the trash. During the process, he kept feeling like he should put the Monopoly book away; but, as with the toothbrush, it wasn't a decision for him to make.
Sighs of effort caused Hutch to look up, and he saw Starsky walk into the living area. His partner was wearing a blue robe, his hair only towel dry and he walked with a not-quite-steady shuffle.
"Didn't expect to see you up so soon," Hutch greeted casually, finishing with the last of the trash.
Shoulders shrugged as Starsky came into the kitchen.
Hutch filled a glass with orange juice. "Here."
Starsky leaned against the counter and tilted the glass. After a few careful sips, he glanced about the apartment. "Thanks for cleaning up."
The shorter man drew a deep breath and let it out slowly.
"Aspirin working?" the blond ventured.
"L'il bit." Starsky took another sip of juice, then spotted the book on the counter. He put the glass aside and picked up the book, leafing through it.
Hutch reached for an overhead cabinet, keeping one eye on his partner. "Think you can handle some cereal?"
"I dunno." Starsky was completely absorbed in the book, slowly turning the pages.
A box of Captain Crunch was now on the counter. "Partner?" Hutch ventured softly.
Starsky managed to look up. "Hm?"
Hutch felt his insides go soft. He laid his hand on a robed shoulder. "I guess I haven't said it yet," he looked down, "but I'm really sorry...." he glanced up, met his partner's worried orbs, "about... about everything."
Starsky's own eyes darted away, the hint of a smile lighting a mouth corner. Then he gently scolded, "Hey, it's too early in the mornin' to be gettin' all mushy."
The blond managed a snort of amusement. "Yeah." He removed his hand and turned back to the box of cereal, taking out a bowl and pouring a small serving.
Starsky was still holding the book, and he glanced over his shoulder at the bowl. "Is that for you or for me?"
Hutch took a carton of milk from the refrigerator. "I can't handle that much sugar this early in the morning." He poured milk into the bowl.
Starsky laid the book down on the counter and gazed at it a long moment.
Hutch patted the back of a chair. "Come on. Try to eat something."
The darker man continued staring at the book. After a long moment, he softly said, "Hutch?"
Worried by the distant expression, Hutch went to stand next to his partner.
Starsky's eyes remained on the book. "I need to be alone this weekend."
Hutch wasn't surprised at the request. But that didn't make granting it any easier. Still, there was no argument he could make against it, knowing what his own needs had been like after Gillian.
He took a step closer, head bowed. He placed both hands on one of Starsky's shoulders. And sighed with reluctance. "Okay," he managed around a choked whisper. But he couldn't move away.
Again, a smile tugged at Starsky's mouth corner. "I'll be okay," he said without looking up.
Hutch gripped the shoulder a little tighter. He swallowed away the thickness in his throat, then said, "If you change your mind...."
Hutch had an urge to wrap an arm around his partner and press him tight against himself. But he contained it, knowing that would bring forth the very emotions Starsky wanted to deal with in solitude.
Hutch let go. And turned away. "See you Monday, huh?"
He had to look back in order to catch Starsky's nod. And then he left the apartment.
The fresh air felt good. After some coffee and a little food, he might be able to do something worthwhile today.
But as he drove away, Hutch found himself feeling unbalanced, wondering what Starsky was thinking, feeling, but not being there with him to see it through. He was certain Starsky would be all right; it was just the pain that his partner would suffer in the meantime, waiting for time to cushion it with its own brand of healing. Up until last night, Starsky's thoughts had been dominated by his anger toward Prudholm. Now there was nothing to distract his grief.
Hutch knew that he himself would be walking a thin line in the weeks to come. Hovering extra close to his partner, being especially attentive to every little mood or gesture. And he would also point out humor in any given situation, trying to rally Starsky, to show him that life was still worth living despite all the pain. But, at the same time, he would have to be respectful of Starsky's sadness, allow him the moments of grief and brooding, try not to take away his partner's right to feel what he felt.
How well Starsky had walked that line himself, Hutch marveled, when their situation had been reversed. Gillian's death was the last blow the blond's heart could bear to suffer. And so, despite all his rationale to the contrary, he had been determined to not let it feel again. But Starsky had been there, day in and day out, his sheer presence making Hutch feel there was a reason to get out of bed; a bundle of energy that didn't force him, but more subtly prodded. That made him feel he was worth something, despite being so easily fooled by what Gillian was. Made him feel strong and powerful and brave, despite being so smitten with love that he'd missed all the danger signs that if something seems too good to be true... it probably is. And was.
Hutch found himself heading home. But home was the last place he wanted to be. It was too familiar, too confining, too much of everything he had tried to escape by making himself a constant presence at Starsky's apartment.
Of course, his company hadn't always been welcome. This wasn't the first time that Starsky had wanted to be alone, though it was the first time he had specifically asked to be.
Before, Hutch had understood the unvoiced message, but hadn't been able to obey because staying away hurt more than staying with Starsky when he knew he was not wanted. And, perhaps, in a way Hutch's company really had been wanted, but in an unobtrusive way that he himself understood so well: the desperate need to not be responsible for another's thoughts or feelings -- even if of mere concern -- because you were so overwhelmed with your own. Therefore, the desire for solitude was prevalent, so you could pamper your own anger and grief without having to be expected to respond to another's well-intentioned joking or simple conversation. Therefore, too, the desire to not be alone with your own thoughts because they were so suffocating, so poisoning. Therefore, the desire to have the one you trusted most, the one whose presence was the most desirable, be near. But not to speak, not to demand anything of you, not to try to prompt a display of feeling. But to just… be.
Starsky was over that part now. He had actively embraced Hutch's comfort, understanding, and sympathy the past few days.
And now the final phase. The need for solitude, and the security within himself to demand it.
Hutch sighed. He did not want to go home.
"Where's your better half?" Huggy asked as be placed a beer before his visitor.
"He gonna be okay?"
Hutch presented a tiny smile, for the truth felt good. "Yeah. He's gonna be fine."
"He must be out havin' himself a nice weekend since you're here alone."
Hutch wasn't sure if he could grasp the convoluted logic. He did grasp that Huggy meant it as a playful putdown.
"Tell me something," Hutch requested as he slowly rotated his beer, watching the dim light bounce off the glass, "is that the same question you ask Starsky when I'm not around: 'Where's your better half?'"
Huggy regarded him thoughtfully, as though trying to figure out how to play the diplomat. Then he said, "When you take something strong and pure and split it in two, well," the thin shoulders shrugged, "the missing half is what's got to be the better half because it's what's needed to complete the whole."
Hutch's grin reflected admiration at his friend's dubious "logic". But his mind latched on to something else. "Strong and pure, huh?" He realized his voice sounded doubtful.
"Yeah," Huggy drawled with confidence, seeming to relish his role as the one who was expected to explain everything. "You both are definitely stronger together than you are apart. You wouldn't prefer to meet some hood in any alley alone, would you?"
Hutch didn't bother with an answer because it was so obvious. "And pure?"
"Well," Huggy hesitated, as though this part were more difficult. "Yeah. You guys are pure together. You know. I mean, your partnership is...." now he definitely stumbled, "well, you know, pure."
Hutch chuckled softly, enjoying Huggy's position while also intrigued. "You lost me."
"Look at other relationships," Huggy offered after a moment. "Why do people stay together? Usually, it's because they're attracted to each other, right? You know, men and women, the birds and the bees. Or," Huggy snapped his fingers as though a light bulb had gone on, "look at families. Family members can downright hate each other, but still most families stay together, right? And the reason they do is because blood is thicker than water and all that jazz. They stay together despite everything. It's like an unwritten law."
Huggy stopped talking, and when Hutch finished sipping his beer he prompted, "I'm with you so far."
"With you and Starsky there's no 'law' that says you have to stay together, that you have to, you know, love each other no matter what. I mean, if you didn't like each other and couldn't get along, you could each get a new partner. So, there's nothing that requires you to stay together. No blood, no attraction, no vows, none of that stuff. And yet...." Huggy waved his arms with a flourish, "you do stay together. Stuck together like cement. Only... there's no cement. There's no substance forcing you to be together. But you're together anyway. Because you just… want to be, I guess. But that's what I meant by pure: you don't have to be together, but you are."
It was a moment before Hutch realized that Huggy had stopped talking. He was intrigued by the explanation the plethora of words that wasn't a fancy poem meant to impress, but a dissertation of something genuinely believed.
Hutch took another sip of beer. "Thanks, Hug. I guess I do know what you mean."
A new customer stepped up to the bar, and Huggy moved away to serve him. Hutch shifted in his seat and gazed at his beer.
Like cement. Only without the cement.
He wondered if that was why he felt that Starsky hadn't been Terry's to give… despite all her loving intent.
If... it... hadn't happened, and she and Starsky had gone on, probably gotten married... it would have been a marriage like others, based on extreme mutual attraction. Mutual passion. Cemented by vows and the promise to love and care for each other forever.
Vows he and Starsky had never exchanged.
Vows the absence of which, according to Huggy, made their partnership more "pure". Because they were cemented without the cement.
Something comforting in that. Something powerful and strong because the strength was intangible, something that could not be touched, and therefore could not be physically broken.
It could only be broken from within, if either of them chose to break the trust, taint the purity.
Hutch drew his brows together. He wasn't sure how either of them could accomplish that even if they were to try.
An unsettling thought… not knowing how to destroy something that was surely capable of being destroyed. If they stopped caring enough. Stopped making an effort. Stopped loving.
Which, of course, could never happen.
Hutch finished the beer and left the bar. Home was no longer so unappealing.
Hutch had just finished cleaning the last piece of his gun when the phone rang. He got up from the sofa and picked up the receiver. "Yeah, speak to me."
"Hey," came the soft nasal tone.
"Starsk?" Hutch questioned worriedly, for it was only six o'clock Saturday evening. The weekend was far from over. "You okay?"
"Yeah." Hutch thought he detected humor at his concern. "Hey, listen, you busy?"
"No. Just cleaning my gun."
Definite humor this time. "I know you're desperate, but don't talk dirty to me, blondie. I'm your partner, not your date, remember?"
"On a good day," Hutch played along. He was, in fact, elated at Starsky's playfulness.
"Whaddya say we get a beer or something?"
Levelly, anxious for the response, Hutch said, "I thought you wanted to be alone."
"I've already done the alone bit," Starsky replied. "Don't need to anymore."
The words sounded so final that they were disturbing. Gently, Hutch asked, "Want to talk about it?"
"If you'll buy."
"Sure. Five minutes."
"Ten for me."
"See ya." The line went dead.
Hutch hurriedly put his gun back together.
The beer was already served when he got there.
"Hermiting get old?" Hutch asked as he slid into a rear booth next to his partner. He knew from experience just how easily it did get old. But the prospect of facing others when he didn't want to have to speak of his grief and pain had been the winning factor over boredom. And he had stayed indoors. Until Starsky came and retrieved him. Again and again.
It occurred to Hutch now that Starsky was much stronger than he when it came to combating pain.
The other was stronger than he in many ways, it seemed.
Starsky shrugged. "Everything has its time and place. And its time was past."
Hutch felt relief. But his voice was gentle. "You sure?"
Now a scolding, lop-sided grin. '"Course, I'm sure. I wouldn't be here with you if I wasn't, would I?"
"Gotta go on, Hutch," the other said. "Life goes on for us who are still living. We can't quit, sacrifice our own lives because someone we love lost theirs."
Though his partner's tone was sincere, something in the words sounded overly rational. "I know," Hutch said quietly. "But that doesn't mean you can't feel the loss… grieve for what you've lost."
"I've already done that, Hutch." Starsky shifted and folded his hands on the table top. He regarded the hard surface intently for a moment. Then he met his partner's eye and smiled a little. "Got it out of my system. I mean, the most painful part." His brows narrowed as his voice softened. "You bein' there, it helped me get through it that much faster." The smile faded. "You're solid," he said as though realizing it for the first time. "Like a rock." The tone softened once again. "Makes all the difference."
"I had a good teacher," Hutch noted truthfully.
Starsky muttered something the blond didn't catch.
"What?" he asked, tilting his head closer.
"Nothin'. I was just thinking of that saying about the gift coming back to the giver. When you think about it, I guess in a way it does."
"We aren't bound by gifts, pal." Hutch was surprised at the firmness in his voice.
"Yeah?" The word wasn't a challenge, rather a lead-in to a more curious question. "Just what are we bound by?"
Cement, Hutch almost said. But didn't because it wasn't true. What bound them was just as tough -- more so, in fact -- and all the more precious because it was by choice and not by blood or any other substance. "Love," he finally said.
Starsky looked thoughtful. "Yeah," he agreed distantly. Then, "I guess Terry knew that, huh? I guess that's why she left that note." A wry, shy smile. "That's why she left it for you. She knew you'd take good care o' me." He ducked his head bashfully.
Hutch placed his hand on his partner's shoulder and squeezed. Perhaps she'd known that Starsky hadn't been hers to give, perhaps she'd only "entrusted" him by virtue of her belief that she was leaving him in good hands; and concern for his well-being after she was gone was something she did not have to face in her final days.
In fact, perhaps Starsky's pathetic record at Monopoly was all that she had been concerned about.
Hutch straightened, letting his hand drop. "What do you want to do with the rest of your weekend?"
Starsky looked at him seriously. "Spend it with you, Hutch. Just like old times."
Before you gave your heart to another and got it broken?
Hutch forced a smile, picked up his glass, and touched it to his partner's. "Okay. How about a movie tonight and a day in Santa Barbara tomorrow?"
Starsky grinned. "Sounds great. Let's go down the boulevard and see what's playin'."
Hutch sipped his beer. Terry was gone. Certainly not forgotten. But Starsky was free to love others, though Hutch knew it would be a while before his partner was ready.
In the meantime, their partnership would grow even more solid.