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THE HEART KNOWS
Two days after arriving back home, Starsky stopped by Hutch's on his way to work. After giving the telltale knock, he let himself in with the key over the door. He found his partner in his green robe and stirring a morning concoction.
"Good morning," he greeted.
"Morning," Hutch muttered. He stirred the drink in his glass. Again and again.
"Just thought I'd see how you were doing before I hit the salt mines." Starsky sat down in a chair opposite Hutch. The skin on the blond's nose and neck was still blistered, but the rest of his body had started to peel. "How's your new birthday suit comin' along?"
Hutch gave him a baleful look.
"Too bad you still get today off. If you came in with me, you could answer the phone first in case it's Mary Ann."
That brought another disapproving look. "You're going to have to face her, Starsk, sooner or later, and find out what the problem is."
"I know," Starsky sighed. "I just don't understand what's gone wrong with us. I thought we'd work things out when she got back from San Francisco. But she's still mad at me and she won't tell me why. She says she doesn't want to talk to me...but she keeps calling me." He shrugged. "I feel like I'm running in circles and she's in the middle watching."
Hutch nodded as though in sympathy, but didn't speak. His attention still seemed to be on his drink, which he continued to stir.
Starsky frowned, disappointed that his partner wasn't being more helpful. "Well, guess I'd better get going, so I won't be late." He stood.
"You're going to be late for work," Hutch said firmly.
Starsky obeyed the sharp tone and worriedly asked, "What's wrong?"
Hutch looked at him squarely. "I'm tired of going in circles, too."
"What do you mean?"
"Lay it out to me straight. How did you find me?"
Starsky sat back down, his heart beat a little stronger, softening his voice. He put his arms on the table, leaning forward eagerly. "It was the strangest thing, Hutch. A couple of nights after you guys left, I had this incredible dream. I was walking in a desert, and I was exhausted, and hot, and thirsty. And I just knew that I had to keep moving. And when I woke up, my head was pounding and I felt sick in my stomach. And then, the next two days, I kept feelin' like I was thirsty. Kept drinkin' lots and lots of water." He laughed. "Dobey thought I had diabetes. Can you believe that? He wanted me to see a doctor."
Hutch didn't laugh. "Maybe you should."
Starsky shook his head, wondering how Hutch could miss the point. "No, no, Hutch. Since we found you, I've been fine." His voice softened again. "It was just between the dream and when we found you that I felt real thirsty."
"So, how did you find me?" Hutch persisted. He finally quit stirring and sipped from his glass.
"Well, after they found the abandoned Mustang, they had helicopters looking all over the area for you. And then we were at the sheriff's station, talking about where the car was found on the map, and then the sheriff mentioned something about a desert area and--bam!--it just suddenly all clicked into place. I knew you were out there. I just knew it. Because of the dream, I mean. And feeling like I was thirsty. It was incredible, Hutch."
Hutch gazed at him a long moment, not speaking. Finally, he grunted. "Humph."
Starsky felt a sinking disappointment that Hutch didn't share his joy in the story. "That all you got to say?"
The blond took another sip. When he pulled the drink away, he admitted, "That is a pretty incredible coincidence."
"Coincidence? Coincidence? It was a helluva lot more than that."
"Like what?" Hutch challenged.
"Well, I dunno," Starsky admitted, puzzled as to why Hutch was giving him what felt like an interrogation. "But, Hutch, I've never had a dream like that before. I mean, so vivid. If it weren't for that dream we would never have figured out where you were."
Hutch's face closed and he began stirring vigorously again.
Frustrated, Starsky pointed out, "You believed that Joe Collandra guy. How come you don't believe this?"
Hard blue eyes turned on him. "How come you do? Especially when you didn't believe Joe Collandra?"
"Because I had the dream," Starsky stabbed at his own chest with a finger. "Doesn't matter whether or not it can be explained 'normally', does it? For God's sakes, Hutch, it's because of the damn dream that I found you. Why is it so hard for you to believe, when the fact that you're here right now is proof that there was something--I dunno, psychic, I guess--going on between us?"
Hutch was on his feet, voice raised. "There was nothing psychic going on between us when you were kidnapped by Simon's goons. I almost didn't find you in time. I almost didn't find out who hired Vic Bellamy in time. I didn't have any psychic help."
Starsky watched his partner's chest heave as the blond fought to bring his anger under control. Quietly, he reminded, "But you did find me those two times, Hutch. Maybe that's the difference. There's no way we would have ever thought you might be in that desert. Maybe that's why some sort of psychic connection or whatever kicked in."
Hutch plopped back into his chair, shaking his head in disbelief, but his voice was calmer. "Angels on our shoulders? I don't think so, buddy."
Starsky shrugged. "There's no harm in the thought, is there?"
"Yes, there is." The blond's voice wasn't raised as high as before but the anger was just as poignant. He waved his hands at nothing in particular. "If something...happens to you...and I gotta find you before it's too late, how good do you think my chances are going to be if I sit back and wait for some sort of," he waved an arm dramatically, "psychic intervention? How would I ever forgive myself if my belief in that made me try this much," he held a thumb and forefinger barely apart, "less hard to find you; and it made all the difference between finding you dead and finding you alive?"
"You wouldn't try any less harder, Hutch. Not even that much less. I know that."
Hutch stared at him doubtfully.
Starsky stood so abruptly that his chair made a noise as it scooted back. "I don't even know why we're arguing about this. Any way you look at it or define it, we have something special between us, and that specialness should be bringing us something...good...instead of causing us to argue with each other." He shrugged dismissively. "If I have to fight with someone I care about, it may as well be with Mary Ann." He marched to the door and slammed it shut behind him.
* * *
The phone rang and Starsky sighed as he picked up the receiver. "Sergeant Starsky."
"Mary Ann?" Despite his not knowing what to say to her, he was glad that she'd called.
"Look, uh, can you come over tonight after work for dinner?"
"Will you be able to be here by seven o'clock?"
Starsky smiled into the phone. "Sure, sweetheart."
"All right, darling, see you then."
Starsky kissed the receiver, his smile widening as he hung up. Sometimes making up was incredibly easy to do.
* * *
The phone rang again an hour later. "Sergeant Starsky speaking."
The voice was male. And bashful. "Hey, uh...how's it goin?"
"It's goin'." When nothing was immediately forthcoming, Starsky prompted, "How's it going for you?"
"Hey, uh...look, uh...how about swinging by my place after shift? If I promise to have something edible?"
Starsky's heart sank. "Ah, Hutch, I got a date with Mary Ann right after work."
"Oh, never mind," Hutch said quickly. "You patch it up with your lady friend. I don't want to get in the middle of that."
"Yeah," Starsky said regretfully. He wished he could say something else to smooth over the earlier breach between them, but Hutch spoke first.
"See you tomorrow, buddy."
"Yeah. See you then."
Starsky hung up, no longer smiling.
* * *
The Torino darted forward when the light turned green. It was dark and Starsky was headed for Mary Ann's house. He'd gotten involved in a conversation with Dobey and left later than intended. Now he was trying to make up for it by gunning through yellow lights.
He sighed, thinking about how rare it was for him or Hutch to have a reason to apologize to one another. And how difficult a time Hutch in particular had in doing so. The request for his partner's presence after an argument was a big step for the blond to make. And Starsky had had to turn him down in deference to Mary Ann.
Sweetheart, you'd better be worth it. She had sounded warm to him on the phone, like she wanted to make up. Starsky was more than willing. But, more importantly, he'd decided on the way over that they were going to hash out their problems tonight and not put it off any longer. He was determined that a delicious dinner and pleasurable lovemaking were not going to interfere with having the conversation that was long past due. Either they were serious about each other--and had to therefore make an effort to communicate better--or they weren't. And if they weren't, they should have the courtesy to stop wasting each other's time.
The light at the next block turned red and Starsky slammed on the brakes. He sat there, revving the motor, trying to ignore the fact that the cross street was the boulevard that would take him to Ocean. If he even stopped at Hutch's for a few minutes, it would take him far enough out of his way to make him a half hour late to Mary Ann's.
Starsky swallowed. There was no reason to upset her further when they already had so many communication problems. Being on time would be a big step toward showing his seriousness about wanting them to work things out.
The light turned green.
"Dammit," Starsky swore at no one in particular, making a right onto the boulevard that would take him to Ocean.
* * *
"Hutch," he called while knocking rapidly. He'd seen the LTD in the parking lot, so at least his partner hadn't gone elsewhere for the evening after being gently rejected by his partner.
The door opened. Hutch stood there, still in his robe, with his guitar in hand. "What are you doing here?" he asked, stepping back. "Don't tell me Mary Ann already threw you out."
"Nah, I still need to get to her place. Not gonna be long." Starsky moved into the living room, while Hutch, watching him, sat back down on the sofa. "So," Starsky rubbed his hands briskly together, "what have you been up to all day?" He finally decided to straddle an arm of the sofa.
Hutch set the guitar down so he could rub his hand along the opposite arm. "Peeling off dead skin."
"Hm." Starsky waited expectantly, and then decided he really didn't come here to listen to Hutch apologize. His head ducked slightly. "Uh, look, Hutch. I'm, uh, sorry about this morning."
Hutch shrugged and took up his guitar again. "So am I. Guess I've been a little touchy lately." He picked at a string, its singular sound vibrating through the apartment.
"Well, if either of us has a right to be, you do. Guess I shouldn't have been so pushy about the dream."
Hutch hit another string, then, "You were just answering my question. I guess I had let some stuff build up, and I took it out on you."
Starsky shrugged. "What are partners for?" Then his brow furrowed. "What stuff build up?"
"The usual in that type of situation: Anger that I got left out there like that when I hadn't done anything wrong. Self-righteousness that things like that aren't supposed to happen to me. Disbelief that it was all going to end that way."
Starsky shook his head thoughtfully. "I don't think that's what was making you mad this morning."
Hutch hit a string a little too heavily, and its twang was loud and bitter.
Gently, Starsky said, "You were scared this morning, Hutch, reliving those times when you thought you wouldn't be able to get to me in time. I shouldn't have walked out on you when you were feeling like that. I knew you weren't mad at me."
Hutch set the guitar down again. He gazed at the coffee table a long moment, then said, "Yeah, I guess I was." He looked up and shrugged again. "I guess maybe," his eyes closed and he released a heavy breath, "it got mixed up in being out there, and afraid that I wasn't going to make it, that nobody was going to find me in time." His eyes opened, and now they were bright with gratitude.
"Ah, Hutch." Starsky hopped off the sofa arm, moved the guitar out of the way, and plopped down next to the blond. He rested his forehead against his partner's robe-covered arm.
Softly, Hutch said, "If I'd had any energy left, I would have cried like a baby when you were just suddenly...there. Couldn't believe it."
"I'm surprised you remember any of it."
"I remember...WATER. Cool. Wet. The sound of the helicopter. You hovering over me. That I couldn't move, but that was okay."
Hutch went silent, and Starsky was feeling so comfortable that he decided to mix in some humor and said, "Guess you don't remember them sticking that thermometer up your backside."
There was further silence, then Hutch glumly admitted, "No, I don't remember that. How considerate of you to mention it."
"Just bein' a pal."
Suddenly, Starsky was pushed away. "Go on," Hutch said. "Mary Ann's waiting."
"Shit," Starsky said, jumping to his feet. "She's going to be pissed as hell that I'm late. Hell hath no fury...."
"Why don't you call her and let her know you're on your way."
"Because she'll start arguing with me over the phone. It'll just waste time, since we'll probably be arguing when I get there, anyway."
Hutch picked up the guitar again. "You'll work it out."
The blond's face softened. "Yeah. You two are good for each other. She's got a feistiness about her that's equal to yours."
Starsky reached to the door knob. "I'll remember that when she's roasting my nuts over an open flame."
* * *
She opened the door of her house when he knocked, but then she stormed away with her arms crossed.
"Mary Ann," he started, following her, "look, I'm sorry. I know I said I'd be here at seven, but Captain Dobey and I were talking about an important case, and I just couldn't walk out in the middle of it."
She swung to face him. She was wearing a black velvet dress that hung low about her bust. "You could have called."
"I didn't want to stop to take the time and be even later than I am. I'm here now."
She moved away again. "That's what you always say when you're late."
"Well," he sputtered, "it's true. What difference does it make now that I'm here? I mean, what else can I do to make it up to you?"
"Don't do it again." Her back was to him.
"I can't make a promise like that. You know with my job that sometimes things come up and--"
"That's just an excuse."
He stepped in front of her, arms spread. "All right. What do you want from me? What can I do to get back into your good graces?"
She turned toward the bedroom. "Let's fuck."
She swung around. "That's what you want, isn't it? That's supposed to solve any and all problems."
Starsky felt the fire go out of him. Meekly, he said, "What are you talking about?"
"Whenever anything bad happens, you want to screw."
Starsky blinked, feeling more lost than ever. "What bad things are you talking about?"
Her voice quivered with unshed tears. "When I first found out my grandmother was terminal, you just wanted to fuck me."
Starsky felt his jaw drop. Confusion gave way to disbelief, and then an ache that went to the very core of his masculinity. "M-M-Mary Ann," he stuttered, reaching to gently take her arm, "I-I-I just wanted to make love to you."
"Is that what you call it?" she asked, tears falling. "I have my heart ripped out because my grandmother is the most important person in the world to me, and you think sticking your prick into me is supposed to make it all better?"
Starsky fought down every instinct to lash out at her for trampling on his masculinity and so completely misunderstanding his motives. "Mary Ann," his own voice was unsteady, "I wanted to comfort you, protect you, make you feel alive. I th-thought making love to you was a way of making you feel loved...despite all your sorrow. Man oh man, I never would have done it if I thought you didn't want it." His voice hardened as the memory became clearer. "What signal did I miss that meant 'no'?"
"How could I say no?" she sniffed, moving away from him. "I was in shock and going through the most traumatic moment of my life, and all you could think about was doing it."
Starsky felt that his heart had dropped down to the level of his shoes. He sat heavily on the couch, his head in his hands. "I felt so sad for you," he explained, not looking up, "and I wanted to comfort you, and love you. Making love to you had always seemed to be something pleasant and wonderful for you, so I wanted to give you that when you seemed to need it so much right then." He looked up. Those big, dark eyes were on him as she wiped her nose. "If I was wrong, then I have no defense. But, Mary Ann, please, for God's sakes, don't think it was for anything other than what it was. I wasn't thinking about me that night. I was thinking about you. If I'd known for one second that you didn't want that kind of sympathy, I never would have done it." He swallowed, then said something he very much wanted her to know. "I've never in my life asked twice when I got a 'no' the first time. I have never in my life made love to any woman who I didn't feel wanted it wholeheartedly from me."
She put the tissue aside. "It's never occurred to me before that I might have to explain why I didn't want sex. But I guess I should start saying yes or no every time you come on to me."
"Fine." Starsky picked up a magazine, angry now, and tossed it back on the coffee table. He followed her to the kitchen. "There's a whole 'nother issue here, you know."
She looked at him with red-rimmed eyes. "What's that?" She turned to the stove and stirred something that looked like gravy.
"Why-in-the-hell am I just now finding out about this? Huh?" He leaned toward her. "You found out about your grandmother--what?--two, three weeks ago? You've been madder than hell at me about making love to you that night, and it hasn't occurred to you to tell me about it until now?"
She looked sharply at him. "I explained that. I was in such a state of disbelief. I kept trying and trying to rationalize it--why you behaved that way. It's taken me this long to realize that I didn't do anything wrong." She turned off the burner beneath the gravy.
"Jesus, you make it sound like I raped you or somethin'."
She swung around completely to look at him. "You said it, not me."
Starsky closed his eyes, trying to get his brewing emotions under control. He was certain that, if it were anyone else, he would walk out and never look back. But he and Mary Ann had been relatively happy together for months. And he had come here determined to find a way for them to return to that more peaceful happiness. If anyone walked away, he decided, it wasn't going to be him.
"All right, I was wrong."
She pulled down plates from a cupboard. "Here. Put these on the table."
He took them. "What are we havin', anyway?"
"Meat loaf. If it's dry, it's because you're late."
"You know, Mary Ann," he said, setting plates out for each of them, "I have to keep wondering that if I'm such a total screw-up, then how come you keep calling? I mean," he accepted the salad she handed him, "I must have some good qualities."
She poured the gravy into a server. "Don't flatter yourself."
"By the way, how is your grandmother?"
She sighed heavily. "She seems to accept it. She's been making out lists of who gets all her things."
Starsky put the salad on the table and turned back to capture her by the shoulders. He massaged deeply and was relieved when she let him do it. "Mary Ann," he said tenderly, "I really am sorry. I-I know something about having someone you love very, very much having only a short time to live."
She glanced at him. "I didn't know."
He let his hands drop as she moved to the oven. "Yeah, well, I really don't like to talk about it. Especially now. I'm a lot more interested in talking about us."
She pulled the meatloaf from the oven. "What about us?"
"Well, gee, where do I begin?" He placed the large platter on the table.
"I hate sarcasm," she muttered. She stood back and looked at the table. "All right, we're ready."
He held a chair for her, then seated himself to her right. "You can't tell me that the way we've been lately is normal. I mean, I've never been in a relationship before where the woman was mad at me for so long."
She served herself salad. "So, now I'm 'the woman'."
"See? Every little thing I say, you pick at. I mean, can you even remember if I've done one good thing the past week or so?"
She passed the salad to him. "I'm thinking."
He sat the salad down, and exhaled a heavy breath. "Mary Ann, look. I'm here because I love you. I admit that sometimes I have no idea on Earth why I love you, but I do. You're beautiful and sexy and smart and...moody as hell, but I love that about you, too. You're good for me. Hutch even says so."
She snorted beautifully. "Guess that makes it true, if Hutch says so."
Starsky studied her, wishing he'd never brought up Hutch's name. "Now who's being sarcastic?"
Since he was so involved in looking at her, she took upon the task of placing food on his plate.
When it became obvious that she wasn't going to respond to his question, he said, "Mary Ann, the bottom line for me is that I can't have a serious relationship with someone who is mad at me and won't tell me why--won't give me a chance. I mean, I can put up with a lot, but being in the dog house without a reason kind of makes the whole relationship thing sorta pointless, if you get my drift."
For the first time, she smiled, "Oh, so we're talking about a serious relationship now." She stabbed at her green beans.
Starsky took her by the wrist and removed the fork from her fingers. "We're going to talk this thing out, right now, with no distractions."
"The food will get cold."
"I don't care. This is more important." He waited until she relaxed in her chair and looked at him with luscious brown eyes. "Yes, I want to talk about a serious relationship. Either we gotta work things out, or we go our separate ways. I can't stand being in between. And I, personally, vote for working things out, 'cause I'm so crazy about you. But if you don't want to, then we'll have a pleasant dinner and I'm outta here. For good."
She nodded and reached for her wine glass. "Working things out sounds good to me, too."
"Okay, I have a few things I want to say. Then I'll shut up and you can say anything you have to say, and we'll go from there. Fair?"
She nodded. "Fair."
"Point one. I am very, very sorry about that night you found out about your grandmother. I never, ever would have hurt you intentionally like that. I need for you to at least try to understand that. It hurts me that you think I'm some kind of walking hormone. When I make love to you, it's because I want to make you feel good and share something beautiful with you. That's the only motivation.
"Point two. You're going to have to trust me enough to tell me how you feel. You like to play word games, Mary Ann, but I know it's because you're trying to cover up your true feelings. I don't expect things to change overnight, and don't think that I'm trying to change you. I just think for a healthy relationship, we have to express feelings openly and honestly, even if it causes an argument. It's not fair to me when you're upset with me but you won't tell me why. I'll treat you with the same respect.
"Point three. If we're gonna get serious, then we can't see other people. For what it's worth, I haven't slept with anyone since we've been goin' together. If you've been sleeping with anyone else, it's time to tell them goodbye."
He sat back. "Your turn."
She leaned toward him. "Point one. If you're going to be more than ten minutes late, you call me. No matter where you are.
"Point two. You need to be willing to spend at least as much time with me outside of work as you do with your cop pals.
"Point three. I'm very close to my family and you're going to have to be willing to accept them as part of our lives.
"Point four. We have fun together and I like being with you. But if we're serious for more than a few months, then I'm going to start thinking about marriage. If that thought sends you running away screaming, then tuck your tail between your legs and go now."
She picked up her wine glass. "Are we in agreement?"
Starsky sat staring at the table.
With disappointment, she said, "The marriage part makes you want to run away screaming."
"No," Starsky said quickly, "it's not that. I-I have an amendment."
"What is it?"
He closed his eyes briefly for a moment, then opened them to look at her. His voice was soft, for he wanted her to understand the seriousness. "You mentioned my cop friends."
She nodded. "Uh-huh."
"And your family."
"Right." She sipped her wine.
"If we...get serious...especially if we eventually reach the point of getting married?"
She nodded impatiently. "Uh-huh?"
"Hutch is gonna have to be a big part of our lives."
"Why?" she asked simply.
"He's my partner. He has been, for years." He took her hand. "Mary Ann, don't ask me to explain. You just gotta accept that...we're like glue, Hutch and me. I mean, we're a single package. Get one, get both."
"I hope that doesn't mean he's going to be sleeping with us." Her eyes twinkled.
"Well...not in the same bed," Starsky hedged, "but there might be some nights, if we've been out late together on a job or somethin', when he might need to crash on the couch." Then, more firmly, "He's gonna be around, Mary Ann. That's what I want you to understand. He's part of my family. And more." Hesitantly, he asked, "You do like him, don't you?"
She shrugged. "He's okay. I haven't really talked to him much to feel like I know him."
Starsky released a silent breath, then picked up his wine glass. "Agreed?"
They clinked their glasses together.
* * *
Starsky was humming the next morning when his partner entered the squadroom. "Hey, there," he greeted.
Hutch pulled off his jacket, revealing long sleeves. The blisters had healed and now his face was peeling. He nodded toward other cops who muttered greetings and then sat down. "You're looking awfully chipper," he noted. "You and Mary Ann must have made up last night."
"Yep," Starsky grinned, "and then some."
"Guess that means your balls didn't get charcoaled."
Starsky's grin widened. "Well, let's just say that...in a manner of speaking, they did."
Hutch laughed. It was a delightful sound. "You lucky devil."
"I tell ya, Hutch, she's a lot of woman. From her quick mind, to her temper tantrums, to her lovely curves that go all the way down to her adorable little feet."
"Hm. Wonder what she sees in you."
"Good question. I've never been able to get that one out of her, but I must be charming her with something."
"Until she gets tired of whatever it is."
"Nah, I don't think so," Starsky said more seriously. "This could be it, Hutch. The One."
The blond's brow furrowed. "Starsk, are you serious? Are you thinking you two might get married?"
"Not anytime soon. But we've definitely gone from the seeing-each-other stage to the going-steady phase. If things work out, well...there's no reason not to, is there?"
Hutch took a stack of files at his left and straightened them. "Guess I better keep the couch available." He sucked in a breath. "Considering her temper, I have a feeling you're going to be sleeping a lot of nights alone."
Starsky grinned like a Cheshire cat as he took a file from the top of the stack and opened it. "But the making up is incredible."
* * *
A basketball game was on TV. Hutch was watching it, bare-chested, while sitting cross-legged in front of the sofa. Behind him, sitting on the couch, was his partner.
Using tweezers, Starsky pulled away a thin layer of old flesh from between his partner's shoulder blades. "A big piece came off that time."
Hutch reached back with his arm. "Get as much off as you can. The itch is driving me crazy and I can't reach it very well."
With his free hand, Starsky rubbed at the middle of his partner's back, pressing hard.
"Ah, yeah," the blond approved, dropping his own hand, "that feels better."
When Starsky used the tweezers again, he said, "It's amazing how much it's still peeling back here, since the rest of you is pretty much all healed."
"Like I said, I can't reach back there much, so I haven't been able to scratch it off."
There was a knock on the door. "That's Mary Ann," Starsky said. To the door, he called, "It's open!" Hutch started to move, and Starsky pushed at his shoulder, stilling him. "I'm not done yet."
"Hi, fellas," Mary Ann said as she entered.
"Hello, Mary Ann."
Hutch looked back at his partner. "Kitten?" he asked in a low, amused voice.
Starsky reprimanded Hutch with his knee, then told her, "Sit down. I'm just about done." He peeled off another layer of skin.
"I've been sitting all day at work." She leaned against the couch. "What are you watching?"
"Basketball game," Hutch said.
Starsky didn't have a clue and continued his work. After an awkward moment, Hutch replied, "I think Chicago is."
"Oh," she said, her voice puzzled at his hesitation.
Starsky put the tweezers down and scratched briskly up and down the center of his partner's back. "That's gonna have to do you for a while."
Hutch made a gasp of pleasure, pressing against the hand.
Abruptly, Starsky rose. He brushed his hands off and said, "All right, my lady, I'm ready for dinner."
"Good. I'm starved." She started for the door and Starsky followed.
He turned around to watch Hutch put on his shirt. "Hey, Hutch, wanna come?" he asked, turning to Mary Ann. He caught the look of surprise and disapproval on her face. Embarrassed, he glanced back at his partner, who had also caught the look.
"You lovebirds go on," the blond said. "I've got some chops defrosting."
"If you say so." Starsky took his girlfriend's arm. "See ya tomorrow, blondie."
As they made their way down the steps, Starsky said, "Did you have to look at him like that when I suggested he come along?"
"I didn't know you were planning to invite him. Whose car?"
"Mine. I don't like leaving the Torino in this neighborhood." He helped her into the passenger side. When he got into the driver's seat and started the motor, he said, "I wasn't planning on inviting him. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing."
"So, why are you mad at me?"
"I'm not mad at you." The Torino started forward.
"You called me this afternoon and said we'd go out to dinner. I assumed you were talking about me and you. I didn't mean to give him a look. I was just disappointed that it meant we weren't going to be alone together, that's all."
"Yeah, I hear you," Starsky muttered. After a moment of wondering if he should elaborate, he finally said, "It's just that that's what I meant before when I told you Hutch was going to be part of our lives. Inviting each other to dinner, even when only one of us has a date, is a pretty ordinary thing with us."
"How come he doesn't have a girlfriend?"
"He has girlfriends," Starsky replied, then amended, "every now and then." His voice lowered. "He's had a lot of rotten luck with them, that's all."
"Sometimes people make their own luck."
Starsky wanted to protest, but he knew that he tended to be overly sensitive where Hutch was concerned and he didn't want his partner being the subject of another argument between them. But after a long silence, he said, "Even what happened to him was because he was betrayed by a woman he thought cared about him."
Mary Ann looked at him. "You mean when he was lost in the desert?"
"Yeah. Can you imagine what that's like for him?" Starsky pleaded. "I'm not just talking about the betrayal. I'm talking about having a group of creeps leave him in the middle of desert, as revenge for something Hutch didn't even do. Can you imagine what that must have been like? Having that helicopter taking off and knowing they'd left him there for the sole purpose of having him die a horrible death?"
After a long silence, she quietly noted, "He seems okay."
"Of course, he's okay," Starsky emphasized in deference to his partner's pride. "Hutch can bounce back from anything. Things you can't even imagine. But can you understand why I want to include him in things? After what he's been through, he deserves to be around people who..." Starsky shrugged, lost for better words, "like him and stuff."
Worriedly, she said, "Maybe we should go back and get him."
"Nah." Starsky felt himself deflate. "He'd know we were talking about him. Maybe I'll check in with him after dinner."
"Doesn't he have any other friends?"
"Well...sure," Starsky replied hesitantly, not liking how the more accurate answer would have sounded. "But not like, you know, friends like him and I are. I mean, Hutch and me have never really sought out other friends, because other people tend to not really understand what it's like for us--what we go through on the job. We're used to hanging out with each other, spending time together."
He looked over at her. She was staring out the side window. "What?"
"Don't take this the wrong way."
He wondered what was coming. "Yeah?"
"Remember when you told me that I was going to have to accept Hutch as part of our lives?"
She turned to look at him. "It's only fair, then, that he accepts me as part of our lives."
Starsky looked out the windshield. He'd never considered that.
* * *
After dinner, they went to Mary Ann's place. Starsky picked up the phone and dialed his favorite number. "Hey," he said when it was answered.
"Nothing. Just checkin' to see how it's goin'."
"It's goin'. How was dinner?"
"Good. What have you been doing?"
"Eating pork chops and reading National Geographic. Any other questions, Mom?"
Starsky grinned. "No. Don't stay up too late."
Hutch grunted. "I'd like to see you try to take your own advice tonight."
Starsky moved to peek into the bedroom where Mary Ann was undressing. "No promises, babe. See ya."
When he hung up, he entered the bedroom in time to see her step out of her slacks. "Oh, that feels good," she said, stretching her neck. "It was a hard day at work today."
"Didn't know bein' a legal secretary could be so strenuous. Besides, why don't you let me take care of that?" He grinned, flexing his knuckles. "I've been told I have magic fingers." He lay down on the bed, propping himself on an elbow.
Dressed in her underclothes, she collapsed on the bed in front of him, on her side. "Magic fingers sounds like just what I need."
He placed his free hand on her and rubbed up to her bra. He did it slow and lazily, enjoying the smoothness of her skin.
"You do that for Hutch a lot?"
"Scratch his back?"
Starsky shrugged, wondering how one determined what "a lot" was for a thing like that. "I dunno. Whenever he needs it, I guess. He needs it a lot right now because he's shedding a whole layer of old skin." He furrowed a brow as he continued to rub, skipping past her bra to her shoulders. "Why?"
"Just wondered. You seemed so into it when you were doing it for him."
"I wasn't just scratching his back. I was helping to peel the old skin off. It really itches between his shoulder blades because he can't reach there."
She shuddered. "Ick. I don't think I'd want to peel off somebody else's skin...touching someone else like that. Gross."
He paused, disappointed. "You couldn't do that for me?"
"You, yes. That's different, silly."
His hand moved again. "Why?"
She made a noise of disbelief. "Because of everything else we do to each other. You know," she said with amusement, "like mingle body fluids?"
"Good ol' body fluids," he approved. He shifted so he could use his other hand to unsnap her bra.
"But that's what I mean," she went on. "I guess it's like throwing up. It's okay if it's your lover or probably your own child or somebody like that. But if it's anybody else, it's just too gross to deal with."
Starsky rubbed at the area where her bra had been, thinking that he'd best not respond.
She tilted her head back to him. "If Hutch threw up, you wouldn't want to clean it up, would you?"
Starsky gently placed her on her back. He hovered over her, pushing the loose bra away. "Mary Ann," he whispered, "I think we have much better things we could be doing with our time than talking about throwing up." He kissed her right nipple. "Do you agree?"
She looked at the ceiling. "I don't know. Let me think about it."
He took the nipple back into his mouth, and then sucked on it, loving how it firmed, applying the exact pressure that he had learned that she loved. Reluctantly, he pulled back. "Still thinking?"
Massaging the right one between thumb and forefinger, Starsky now took the left one in his mouth. He sucked leisurely. But she still hadn't yielded, so he worked his right hand down her body. His fingers slipped beneath the waistband of her panties. He felt her muff of fur, then delicate velvet. He felt farther, found the recess, and pushed his finger in, loving the wetness that gripped it.
Finally, he pulled his mouth away enough to pant, "You aren't still thinking, are you?"
She grabbed his head and pulled his lips to hers. She wrapped her legs around his clothed body while he entered her mouth with his tongue.
As he continued to please her, some part of his mind remembered a room above Huggy's and the bundle of pain that had been in his arms. And he wondered if it were somehow wrong to have willingly cleaned up after Hutch and to have simply wanted to make it all better.
* * *
In his profession, he was accustomed to waking at the slightest noise, even if it was three o'clock in the morning and the afterglow from numerous couplings had sent him into the ozone. "Hm?"
"Would you want to have children?"
He opened his eyes and realized his back was to her. Sighing heavily, he mumbled, "I haven't really thought about it. Why?"
"I've always wanted to. My prescription for birth control pills runs out this month. If you wanted children, too, I thought maybe I just wouldn't bother renewing."
Despite his longing for sleep, this was something that Starsky couldn't answer easily. The consequences were too great. "Mary Ann, can we talk about this later?"
"All right." After a moment, he heard her say, "I love you."
He smiled. "Love you, too."
* * *
"If I ask you something serious, will you give me a straight answer?" They were eating at a table outside a burger joint.
Hutch looked at his partner curiously, then nodded. "Sure."
"Mary Ann wants to have kids."
The blond shrugged, while eyeing him carefully. "Most women do. What about you?"
Starsky looked at the table before him. He'd already finished his burger. "I hadn't thought about it before."
"And now that you have?"
He looked up. And grinned. "Yeah, I guess I'd like to. I'd hate to be old and gray and sorry I never had any."
Hutch smiled, too, but he said, "There's no reason you have to decide now, is there?"
"Mary Ann's prescription is up and she's thinking about not renewing."
Hutch put his burger down. "Starsky. You better give this some thought before she ends up pregnant." His voice softened. "Don't get me wrong, buddy. I think it would be great if you two have kids. But if you're not sure...you wouldn't want one to suddenly be on the way, and thereby taking all your options away and leaving you without a choice." His voice softened further. "I'm just saying you need to sure, that's all."
Starsky rubbed at his chin, pleased that Hutch was so agreeable. "I was thinkin' that if she did up and get pregnant then it would be good that the choice was taken away. Otherwise, I'd just keep stalling and maybe never let it happen."
A finger pointed at him. "If you're stalling, there's got to be a reason somewhere inside you. Maybe you should figure out what it is first." Hutch munched on a fry. "You set a date yet?"
"No." Starsky laughed a little. "I'm stalling about that, too."
"What do you think?" Starsky asked. "Good old-fashioned terror. Weren't you afraid when you and Vanessa were thinking about getting married? It's such a big step."
The blond head tilted to one side, then, gently, "Yeah, I guess I was."
Starsky looked at the table again. "I'm just afraid that things might be different. Between us, I mean. You and me." He looked up. "I don't want them to be different, Hutch."
"Ah, Starsk, things change. It'll be okay. It's a natural step." Hutch put down his burger again and eyed his partner. "You know, buddy, I'm all for it. I like the idea of you having a family and kids and stuff. I'll, you know," he shrugged casually, "miss hanging out with you all the time, but I've been adjusting."
The words warmed him, and it gave Starsky the courage to speak further, though his voice was timid. He was still looking at the table. "I wish you and she knew each other better." He shrugged. "Seems like I'm either with her or with you, and more and more it's with her." His voice lowered. "Wish we could all three spend more time together."
Firmly, Hutch said, "Starsky, I'm not going to sleep with the two of you."
Starsky wadded up the paper his hamburger had been wrapped in, and threw it at Hutch. It hit his partner on the cheek. "Smart ass."
Hutch laughed. It was a delightful sound.
* * *
Two weeks later, Starsky's stomach churned at the idea of the lifelong implications as he slipped an engagement ring onto Mary Ann's finger.
She held up her hand, watching the light bounce off of its many facets. "It's so beautiful." Then she looked at him, as happy as he'd ever seen her. "When should we announce it?"
"Whenever you want."
She clasped his hands. "Let's have a dinner party next weekend. I'll invite my family down."
"Okay. We need to invite Hutch, too."
"Sure. But you don't think he'll feel uncomfortable around my family? Like odd man out?"
Starsky frowned. "It doesn't matter. I want him there. This is the most important time of my life, and he's the most important person in--" He hesitated, alarmed at what he'd almost said, "--from my...bachelor years."
She looked at him piercingly. "Don't choke on the words."
He changed the subject, taking her arm. "Uh, Mary Ann?"
"About having children? Why don't we wait until we're actually married before we start...working on it. That's the way it's supposed to be done, anyway."
She kissed him. "Sure. What's a few more months when we're talking about growing old and gray together? Eight-eight days from now, we'll be husband and wife."
* * *
They were as wrapped around each other as two people could possibly be. They both panted in tune to his thrusts, and Starsky thought there was nothing on Earth better than what he was feeling right now.
The phone rang.
"Don't answer it," she gasped.
"Mary Ann," he grumbled, pulling away and hating the coldness that surrounded his groin, "you know with my job that I have to."
She let her limbs fall away as he fumbled for the phone in the darkness. After picking up the receiver, he only listened for a moment before slamming it down and reaching for his jeans.
"What is it?" she asked.
"Something's happened to Hutch."
He flew out the door, carrying his shirt and shoes.
* * *
Three hours later, Starsky knocked on the door and then pushed it open. "Mary Ann?" With his other arm he gripped his burden a little more securely about the waist. "Come on, you big lug."
She appeared, tying her robe. "What happened?"
"Hutch got a nicked with a bullet. Dumb blond decided to assist, even though he was off duty."
Hutch tried to straighten. "I was just two blocks away from the robbery. Hi, Mary Ann."
"Yeah, yeah." Starsky hauled him over to the couch. "Come on, be a good Blintz and lie down."
"What's wrong with him?" she asked. "Why isn't he in a hospital?"
Hutch collapsed onto the sofa, revealing an arm in a sling.
Starsky pulled the boots off his partner's feet. "He got released." He straightened. "It wasn't serious. Just took some flesh out of his arm. He's woozy from the painkillers. Get a blanket."
She turned down the hallway.
Starsky knelt next to his partner. "Come on, out of those clothes so you can be more comfortable."
Hutch raised his head. "Uhh...." he hesitated.
"Come on," Starsky scolded, peeling back the blond's shirt as Mary Ann appeared with a blanket. "It's not like she's never seen men in their underwear."
"Wait a sec," Hutch said. He struggled into a partial sitting position, so it was easier for Starsky to remove his shirt. Bare-chested, the blond looked up at his host. Soberly, he said, "Sorry, Mary Ann. This was Starsky's idea."
"You're damn right it was," the other said, moving back to unsnap Hutch's jeans. "Somebody has to watch over you, you big dummy. Those black-and-whites could have taken care of the robbery. Come on, get out of 'em."
Mary Ann abruptly turned away to the bedroom.
"Look what you've done," Hutch said, trying to wriggle out of his jeans while keeping his underwear, "now she's mad. I told you I was fine. You could have dropped me off at my place."
"Shut up," Starsky grunted, trying to pull the jeans from Hutch's feet. "She's just being respectful of your modesty." The jeans came away and Starsky tossed them aside. Then he bent and tucked the blanket around Hutch. "Warm enough?"
The blond head nodded, then, sullenly, he said, "I really don't want to impose."
"Shut up. Go to sleep. I don't want to hear another word outta ya until morning." Starsky reached to a nearby lamp and turned it off.
Hutch muttered, "Who died and put you in charge?"
Starsky shook a finger at him. "Not one word." He waited. Satisfied when there was only silence, he moved into the bedroom and closed the door. In the darkness, be unbuttoned his shirt. "You know that saying about how blonds are dumb? My partner out there is absolute proof that it's true." He pulled the shirt off and unsnapped his jeans. "Just because he heard on the radio that a robbery was in progress two blocks from where he was, he felt he had to go in."
Clad only in briefs, Starsky felt for the mattress, then got beneath the covers. "Ah, man, maybe I can finally get some sleep." He reached behind him and felt a hip. He patted it, then closed his eyes.
A flat voice asked, "Why didn't you call me?"
He tilted his head back. "Huh?"
Her voice carried hurt. "You were gone three hours. You flew out of here with hardly a word and I didn't hear a single peep from you until you show up on my doorstep with your partner in tow."
He turned onto his back, knowing he had no defense. "Mary Ann, I didn't want to wake you."
"It didn't occur to you that I was already awake, worried sick?"
"Well...I was with Hutch the whole time."
Now anger. "You couldn't make a simple phone call from the hospital?"
"I never had time, Mary Ann. I was with Hutch in the emergency room. He needed me there."
"If it was just a flesh wound, they just have to...what? Put some stitches in it?"
"And you couldn't leave him for the 90 seconds it would have taken to call me?"
Starsky sighed and turned to face her. "Mary Ann, they were giving Hutch painkillers. I had to be there. A few years ago, he had a--a...bad reaction...to some painkillers. He gets scared that they're going to give him something that he's going to have the same reaction to. So, I needed to be there to make sure the doctors knew what to give him and to make Hutch feel secure that it was gonna be okay. I had to stay with him, Mary Ann."
"But why bring him here? And don't get me wrong," she said quickly, "it's not that it's an imposition. But I heard him out there. He'd rather be at home, in his own bed, where surely he can sleep better than on a strange couch."
"He doesn't know what he wants. He's woozy from the drugs."
"He didn't seem that woozy to me."
Starsky sat up in bed. "Mary Ann, you don't understand how it is. There's a whole psychological thing that goes on when you're shot. It doesn't matter how minor it is. Because, you're thinkin, 'Just a half inch closer, and that flesh wound would have been a broken bone, or a severed artery.' Or, 'Just six inches closer and it would have hit me in the chest.' Or, 'A foot higher and it would have hit me in the head and I'd be dead.' Thoughts like that can make you crazy. You need someone nearby who understands. I mean, he could have a nightmare or somethin'."
"It's not like he wouldn't survive it." Then, "I've had nightmares when I've been alone, and I was still alive the next day to tell about it."
He sighed deeply. "Mary Ann, let's not argue about this right now. If he hears us fighting he'll feel bad and he won't get any sleep."
She pulled the covers tightly around herself. "Wouldn't dare want to ruin his precious sleep, even if it means I'm going to be lying awake instead. At least he has the benefit of drugs."
Starsky collapsed back to the mattress and turned onto his side, away from her. He closed his eyes and tried to still his thoughts. But one remained foremost in his mind: Damn.
* * *
Starsky looked up when Hutch entered the squadroom. "Stitches taken out?"
"Yep." Hutch took off his jacket and flexed and rotated his arm. "Good as new." He sat down. "How are you holding up?"
"What do you mean?"
The blond grinned at him. "Three more weeks. Getting cold feet yet?"
Starsky shook his head and placed his chin in his hand. He liked being able to talk about it. "If you want to know the truth, I'm actually anxious for the big day to hurry up and get here. I won't be backing out, Hutch."
"I'll remind you of that when you're barfing outside the church from nerves."
The phone rang. Hutch looked up but Starsky reached it first. "Starsky here."
She was crying. "David?"
His gut tightened. "Mary Ann, what's wrong?"
"She died. She died this morning."
Starsky felt his heart sink. "Your grandmother?"
"Yes." She spent a moment crying, before she managed to say, "I wanted her so much to live long enough to see us married."
"I know, sweetheart, I know. Look," he thought quickly, "just sit tight and I'll be right over. I'll be right there. We'll drive right up to San Francisco. Okay, honey?"
"All right. Hurry."
"On my way."
He hung up the phone and found Hutch looking at him with concern. "Her grandmother died."
"The one she's real close to?"
"Yeah. Poor kitten." Starsky stood and picked up his jacket. "We're going to have to drive up there and stay for the funeral. I'm not going to be back for a few--"
The phone rang. Hutch grabbed it. "Hutchinson here."
Starsky looked about his desk, moving files from one pile to another so Hutch would be able to make some sort of meaning of them.
"They gave you the wrong extension," Hutch was saying into the receiver.
Starsky started toward the door. The phone rang yet again, and Hutch waved to indicate he'd get it.
But Hutch was still talking and, thinking it might be Mary Ann again, Starsky grabbed the receiver. "Starsky here."
A familiar voice said, "Starsky, my man."
"Get out the chimes, 'cause it's Christmas time."
"What are you talking about?" He looked at Hutch, who had hung up. "Line two."
Hutch obeyed and picked it up.
"You wanted information on some dude named Thomas Whitley?" Huggy said.
Starsky's heart quickened as he looked at his partner. Five months had gone by since Hutch was left behind in the desert, and they hadn't been able to get a single lead on the man who was behind it. "Yeah?" he prompted.
"Someone who owed me a favor scored big. Your friend Mr. Whitley lives in Reno, but he's in town to do some business with his accountant. You hurry, you might get there before he leaves. Suite 320 in the old Tower building downtown."
"Huggy, if you were in front of me I'd kiss ya."
"Greens will do."
They hung up simultaneously. Hutch grabbed his jacket as they headed for the door. "Listen, buddy, I can get backup. Why don't you go on to Mary Ann's?"
They started down the hall. Starsky eyed the blond walking beside him. "Can't do that, partner. I'll call her on the way."
* * *
"You drive," Starsky said as they reached the Torino. As soon as they pulled out of the parking lot, he put the mars light on the roof.
"Don't know if we want to give him any warning," Hutch said.
"It'll get us there faster. I'll take if off when we get close." Starsky had another reason for wanting the noise of urgency. He picked up the microphone. "Control One to Zebra Three."
"Go ahead, Zebra Three."
"Please dial number 555-7882 and patch me through."
There was a pause, then the sound of dialing. Then a soft voice said, "Hello?"
"Mary Ann, look, sweetheart, I got called out on an emergency as soon as I hung up with you. But I'll be there, kitten. As soon as I possibly can. Have everything ready to go and we'll leave just as soon as I get there. I'll call when I'm on my way."
There was hesitation, then, "All right."
"Love you." He hung up the microphone, relieved that she hadn't gotten mad. Then he took the mars light off the roof.
They arrived at the downtown building ten minutes later and took the elevator up to the third floor. They took out their badges upon entering suite 320.
"Police," Hutch told the receptionist. "Where can we find Thomas Whitley?"
"He went down the hall to the men's room. He should be back any moment, if you'd like to have a seat."
"Right or left down the hall?" Starsky asked.
"It's to the left."
They turned from the suite.
It was Starsky who opened the door wide. One man, with dark, graying hair and dressed in a business suit, was drying his hands. He looked at them with disapproval.
Starsky held up his badge. "Police. Are you Thomas Whitley?"
His face closed as he looked from the badge to the two men. "Yes, I am. What's the meaning of this?"
Hutch crossed his arms and rested his back against the door that had closed behind them.
Starsky put away his badge. "You know a man named Frank Jennings?"
There was a look of surprise in the dark eyes. "I'm not going to answer your questions without a lawyer." He tossed a wadded-up paper towel into the trash receptacle.
"Well, let me help you out," Starsky said cheerfully. "He's tall and blond. Has a mustache. In fact," he gestured with a thumb, "he looks an awful lot like my partner here."
Whitley's eyes darted to Hutch, who was still in a casual stance against the door. He swallowed thickly.
"Oh, I see you've noticed the resemblance. You know," Starsky held up a finger, "there's four hit men you hired who also noticed the resemblance. Do you happen to know where Frank Jennings is right now, Mr. Whitley?"
He shook his head. "I've never heard of the man."
"Uh-huh. Well, just in case you're interested, he's now living in Mexico with his girlfriend, Florence Dunning." Starsky's eyes narrowed with feigned curiosity. "You do know Miss Dunning, don't you, Mr. Whitley? She did, after all, promise to deliver Jennings, didn't she? And when your little group of soldiers gave you the word that the deed had been done, I bet you paid Miss Dunning a nice, fat fee for her assistance in your little revenge scheme."
Whitley reached up and loosened his tie. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Smart woman, that Miss Dunning. See, not only is she spending your nice, fat fee in Mexico, but Frank Jennings is helping her do it. I bet they're living a nice, happy life down there.
"In the meantime," Starsky's voice hardened as he jabbed a finger at Whitley's chest, "your henchmen made a very, very big mistake. They thought my partner here," he pointed to the door, "was Frank Jennings." His breath exhaled powerfully through his nostrils as his blood began to boil. "You know, my partner was just down in that area for a nice, little vacation. He'd known Miss Dunning from the past and thought they'd get reacquainted. He had no idea, when he borrowed her car, that he was walking into a trap."
Sweat popped out on Whitley's forehead. "If she's the one who set him up, then what do you want with me?"
"Do you know what attempted murder is, Mr. Whitley? It doesn't matter whether you were trying to murder Frank Jennings, or my partner. It's still a felony. And, besides, Miss Dunning is out of the country, so you're the only one available to take the fall." His voice lowered to a dangerous level. He poked at Whitley's chest, his breath exhaling on the man's chin. "You see, because it's my partner that your little merry men grabbed, then you have to deal with me. Do you have any idea what being stranded in a desert does to you? There's heat. And sun. And never-ending thirst. Your body gets so hot that your cooling system breaks down and you can't even sweat anymore. And the sun is so relentless and your head is pounding so hard that you're not even sure which direction is the right way out. So you wander in circles, watching the buzzards fly overhead, waiting for you to collapse, so they can eat."
Whitley swallowed again, audibly.
Starsky inched closer, their faces almost touching. He was able to smell the other man's fear. "Your sorry carcass had better be damn grateful I found my partner in time. There are some things worth getting revenge for, Mr. Whitley. And if my partner had died out there, I'd be escorting you down to a back alley, where no one could hear you scream. Because you know what I would do to you? I'd take each of your fingers in my bare hands and break them, one by one. And then I'd take my knife and cut off those sorry things you call testicles and feed them to the alley rats. And when you begged me to let you die, maybe I'd light a match and start roasting you, an inch at a time." He let out a breath. "You're damn lucky I found my partner alive." Starsky's muscles tensed, and he grabbed Whitley by the jacket and threw him against the bathroom stalls.
Whitley collapsed to the floor and held his hands up in front of his face as Starsky approached. "No, please."
"Starsk." A hand was on his shoulder, strong and sure.
Starsky spun away. "Cuff him."
Hutch knelt and casually said, "Turn over and put your hands behind your back."
The man stared at him fearfully.
"Don't worry. My partner's finished with you."
Hesitantly, Whitley lay face down on the tile.
While Hutch cuffed him, he looked back at Starsky. "You need to get going to Mary Ann's. Call a black-and-white on the way and I'll ride with them."
Hutch flashed him a tender smile. "See you in a few days, pal."
* * *
After calling for the black-and-white, Starsky had the dispatcher phone Mary Ann's. The line was busy after several attempts, so he gave up and pressed harder on the accelerator.
He rushed up the walkway to her house and tore open the door. "Mary Ann?"
She was off the phone. Luggage was packed and by the door. She was sitting in a chair, rocking back and forth, her red eyes staring into space.
"Mary Ann," he said gently, stepping around the suitcases, "I tried to call when I was on my way, but your line was busy."
"I know," she said in a monotone, not looking at him.
"Who was it?"
Something told Starsky to not move any closer than he was. She was so sad, yet still so beautiful, sitting there in that chair. He placed a hand on the counter near the doorway. Tenderly, he asked, "How is your mother doing?"
She didn't look at him. "What kind of emergency was it?"
He wondered if she were angry but, if so, it wasn't like her to be so complacent. He couldn't keep the pride out of his voice. "We got a lead on the man who was responsible for leaving Hutch to die. He was in town for only a day and we had to arrest him while we had the chance."
A tiny smile lit her mouth corner. "I bet Hutch was glad about it."
Starsky shrugged. He took a step closer into the living room. "I guess so. But...something like this, it was more important to me than to him. It's kinda of hard to explain. It's a partner thing--wanting to get the person who wronged your partner."
She shook her head, maintaining the tiny smile. "You finally admit it."
"That it was more important to you than to him."
Starsky blinked, wondering if it was going to be another round of word games. She seemed to have gotten over playing them the past few months. The gentleness in his voice gave way to puzzlement. "What are you talking about?"
Finally she looked at him. "It was the strangest thing, David. When Hutch was over here for our engagement dinner, he and I had a nice, long talk. I found him to be intelligent, charming, amusing...and probably, of everyone there, the person most happiest that we were getting married."
Starsky wondered where she was leading. "I've told you all along that he thought we were good for each other."
"You've also told me lots of other things," she said without accusation. "You told me things that made me think Hutch was a meek, needy, six-foot tall child who could hardly manage to go to the bathroom without your help."
Starsky frowned at the image. "What are you talking about?"
"'Hutch has been through a rough time and needs to be around people,'" she quoted. "'Hutch needs me with him after he's been shot.' 'You don't know how scared he gets.' 'You don't know what it was like for him, being stranded all alone in that desert.' 'He might have nightmares.' Every time you talked about him, you always phrased it a way that made it sound like he needs you more than anything on this Earth." Now her voice broke, and she sniffed, "You can't face the truth, can you?"
He wanted to go to her, comfort her, knowing that whatever she was talking about was all mixed up in her extreme sorrow over her grandmother. But her focus on Hutch confused him and made his stomach twist, and he found himself still rooted near the doorway.
Her voice quavered in her attempt to fight back sobs. "When you brought him here after he was shot, you didn't do it for him. He didn't even want to be here. You did it for you. When you couldn't leave him alone in the emergency room even long enough to call me, it wasn't because of his fear. It was because of yours. You weren't afraid of him having nightmares. You were afraid of your own nightmares. He didn't need to be near you; you needed to be near him. And being lost in the desert might have left him with temporary physical scars, but the more permanent, emotional ones are all yours. You wanted to include him in everything because you needed him near, not because he needed to be."
She sounded so sure of herself. Starsky sputtered, "Partnerships work both ways." His voice was a mumble as he admitted, "Of course, I was feeling all those things, too."
She nodded slowly. "They work both ways. All partnerships should. Including the partnership of marriage."
He nodded, relieved they were talking about that instead of Hutch. "Right."
But she wouldn't let it go. "I'm glad you got your man today. I really am. You did the right thing, going with Hutch to put some closure on what happened to him. And it was good that it happened now, while I had to wait for you, since I was forced to confront the truth that I've known all along, but I've been too blind to face."
Starsky felt a sense of dread. "What truth?"
She stood. As she stepped to the kitchen counter, she pulled off her engagement ring. She looked at him, eyes no longer wet. "I can't marry you, David."
His chest tightened and all he could think of was denial. "No. No."
Her gaze didn't falter. "You're already more married to him than you'll ever be to me."
He gripped her wrist, his voice unsteady as he felt his future and all his dreams slipping away. "Mary Ann, don't do this. You don't understand."
A short laugh. "Oh, David," she said with tender affection, "it's you who doesn't understand. You've never needed me the way you need him. I can't compete with that."
His insides were crumbling. "Mary Ann, please--"
"I don't hate you, David. I'll never hate you. I suppose when the shock of everything has worn off, I'll feel some bitterness, but I won't feel it forever. I'd like to think that, someday, we'll run into each other and be able to go to dinner and catch each other up on our lives without any bad feelings."
He took her by the arms. His voice was shaking. "Mary Ann, you can't just throw all these months away. We've already built so much together. We've got to work it out."
"Remember the last time we 'worked it out'?" she asked. "We sat there at the table and made a list of rules for each other." She snorted in disbelief. "We put conditions on our relationship. I'll bet you and Hutch never had to do that."
Desperately, he pointed out, "Hutch and me didn't get along that well when we first knew each other. We--"
"But you eventually blended together, didn't you?" she said softly. "Blended together so naturally that you never needed to lay down rules for each other. It's called unconditional love." She lifted her hand, placed it against his cheek. "It's a precious thing. Don't throw it away."
He reached up, gripped her hand, trying to hold it against his face, as though it could make her change her mind. But she pulled her hand away. "Don't blame Hutch for this. I don't." She snorted with soft amusement. "I guess I didn't need to say that. Of course, you won't blame him. In fact, as much as you're hurting right now, I know you won't go to him right away with your pain, because you'll be too worried about how the things I've said will affect him." She took a deep breath. "I'll be staying with my mother until everything...calms down. I have a friend in town who will take care of selling the house for me." She glanced briefly around the interior. "After you've taken your things, lock the door behind you." She picked up her bags and moved to the door.
He grabbed her arm from behind. "Mary Ann, don't do this. We can put off the wedding, but let's not throw everything else away."
Her eyes watered as she faced him. "What would be the point?" she sniffed. "I can't ever own your heart, because you already gave it to him a long time ago." She opened the door. "If it didn't hurt so much, I'd call him myself and tell him I hope he appreciates what a precious gift it is." She gathered her luggage again and backed out the door. "Goodbye, David."
His mouth hung open as he watched her carry her bags down the walk. She didn't look back as she put them into the trunk and started the car. He wanted to run after her, but he knew whatever words were spoken would only bring more pain. He knew her well enough to know that there wouldn't be any changing her mind.
She drove off.
His throat closed as he turned to the interior of the house. It was quiet. Empty.
Just like himself. So empty that he could no longer feel. He could only close his eyes. And whisper. "No."