The story was originally published in the mixed-media zine Red Hot Lovers. Special thanks to the author for providing the files and giving permission for it to be posted to the archive. Comments on this story can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org who will forward it to the author.
SKY BLUE AND BLACK
SKY BLUE AND BLACK by Jackson Browne
In the calling out to one another
I hear the sound of the world where we played
If you ever need holding
Where the touch of the lover ends
Yeah, and I was much younger then
And the heavens were rolling
And I'd have fought the world for you
But the moment has passed by me now
If you ever need holding
You're the color of the sky
And the faces on the avenue
It wasn't exactly a gay bar, just of such patronage, a mix of all types, that it had that tough leather-man feel to it. Actually, it was the lowest point in the gutter, the thin line where all the silt collects, sometimes so thick it was hard to breathe. Hutch had begun to think it was sifting into his pores.
But though it wasn't the worst thing in the world to sit there and make eye contact, drink beer and turn into a regular, Hutch didn't like it much. Couldn't make himself like it. It was close quarters, the air was thick with smoke and voices, the click of pool balls, and someone was even jamming him in the ribs.
"Watch it, man," he snapped.
The offender shrugged and moved off.
This was the type of place Hutch did not prefer. More to his liking was a place where the sun could come into the windows, were it daytime, and the counter he was leaning on would have seen a cleaning rag more often than once a week.
Starsky, on the other hand, leaning backwards on the bar with both elbows, was so much a part of the street, and the streets of him, that he seemed at home. The atmosphere of the seediest of places, Hutch had discovered, rolled right off him. Which was why Hutch was surprised to see him fidgeting.
"What's up, partner?" he asked in a whisper, leaning close.
"He's staring at me again."
Hutch looked at Starsky, craned to see that Joshua Bright, an attractive red-haired man and the focus of their little undercover operation, was indeed staring at them and smiling, and then looked at Starsky again. His friend wasn't incapable of handling himself, but Hutch felt he might need a little assistance.
"If he comes over and talks to you," he said slowly, "tell him you're with me and he'll leave you alone." Hutch took a sip of his beer.
There was a touch of seriousness in Starsky's voice as Hutch hid his own twinge of having approached some unknown boundary.
"With me," he asserted anyway.
Their solemnity broke as Starsky turned towards Hutch to snicker into his beer. "With you, my ass."
Hutch nodded, letting his smile show through his glass. "Yup. Yer mah date."
Of course if Bright did decide he was so attracted to Starsky that he did come over, they would have to play along for awhile. It would fit into their plans to offer to buy or sell drugs, depending on the gentleman's attitude, and fortify their cover with a little interaction. And their cover as two small neighborhood dealers with their eyes on the rung above theirs meant that they had to be into whatever the big boys were.
"Mike's" was a major clearing house for all kinds of drugs, prostitution, porno, and with elections coming up, the governor had decided on a major crackdown on everything. "Just say no" or some dumb thing. How could a person say no to something that was his only pleasure? Homicide, for once, was slow, and drugs needed their help, otherwise they'd have been very far from this type of action.
Anyway, the only other undercover in the bar was a lone cop whose sole job was the buying and selling of child pornography. Sam had told Hutch at one point that for the first couple of days he'd gone home and had nightmares about short-eyed individuals. Sam was a 15-year veteran, but this was the hard stuff. At least Hutch and Starsky only had to worry about the drug deals, something they were used to. Hutch was sure that if he had been the one to work on the child pornography, he'd have blown his cover inside an hour by killing one of his customers.
In the course of a month, he and Starsky had purchased several thousand dollars' worth of cocaine, pot, Ecstasy, and a plastic baggie of assorted colored pills that the lab had not been able to identify. During that same time they'd both tested, or pretended to test, various amounts of their purchases, discovering that neither one of them liked cocaine or Ecstasy, though Hutch thought secretly that Starsky had been viewing the pot with new eyes after getting the severe munchies one night. The pills had gone unswallowed, however, both of them spitting them back out at the same time into their beers.
He reached across Starsky's body to check his watch. 2:30 a.m. Bright had left the bar and all their ready money had been spent. Several baggies of something were tucked securely into Starsky's pockets for checking into the lab later. Another half hour would see them well established as regulars, their few collective past experiences showing them that someone who left right after a deal was definitely going to be pegged as a cop.
When Hutch grabbed his wrist to look at his watch, Starsky looked at it too. It seemed kind of funny sometimes that Hutch, who seldom carried his pocket watch, was always checking the time on Starsky's wristwatch, while Starsky who wore the watch seldom checked it. He looked up in time to see Hutch smiling and looking away. Hutch tended not to look at people when he smiled. If he did, it was usually fake. He looked away when he did a lot of things, turning away sometimes, as if sheltering himself with his body.
He was doing it now, or at least as well as he could without completely moving off the barstool. Starsky watched him draw his large-palmed hand down his face and wondered why Hutch was suddenly pulling away.
"Is it cold in here, darlin', or is it just you?"
Hutch looked at him as if he'd grown two heads. "What are you going on about now?"
"Just wonderin' what's up. This bar gettin' to ya, or somethin'?"
Starsky, staring right at his friend, could not help but see the sad little tilt to Hutch's eyes, or the downward flex to his mouth. Looking down at the surface of the bar, Hutch said, "It is a little smoky in here."
It wasn't that smoky anymore, but there was no way he was going to start poking now, not when they were both undercover. They were both on their last nerves, though it was easier for him, he figured, to act like a criminal. Or was it? Certainly hanging out in a joint like this, playing pool and guzzling watery beer, was more comfortable for him. Hutch, on the other hand, Starsky had always thought, would look better and fit in better as one of those bad guys who wore three-piece suits and traveled on folding money. Had a goon or two to back him up. Like those bad guys in the James Bond movies. He snickered to himself.
"Something funny?" Hutch asked as if Starsky had been laughing at him.
Instantly, Starsky sobered. "Naw, just thinking about you in a tuxedo, that's all."
"Huh," Hutch replied as if he did not believe it, which he did.
"Is it time to go, yet?" Starsky demanded, putting the edge of a whine in his voice that he knew Hutch hated.
"Aw, c'mon, there's nobody here and I want some real food."
Starsky waved his hand to demonstrate and indeed the bar had cleared out, but Hutch would be determined to remain until the designated time to leave. And so they waited. Tipped back empty beer glasses. Finished off the pretzels. Didn't speak.
Until 3 a.m. At Hutch's signal, they got up and left the bar, strolled slowly to Starsky's car.
"Hutch, I'm STARVING. I think I'm gonna faint." Starsky patted his tummy as if to emphasize the hollowness there.
Before going around to his side of the car, Hutch paused to pat Starsky's tummy too. "Unless you live in third world county, I don't think you have anything to worry about." He smiled wickedly as he got into the passenger seat.
"Hutch, I'm serious!"
"You were serious last night too, but you lasted an additional hour, as I recall."
Starsky started the car, shaking his head. "Don't make me go through that again," he insisted.
"You're the one who wanted pizza at 4 a.m."
"Who was I to know that the L.A. pizza industry isn't open all night?"
They drove down the street and Starsky knew that as Hutch looked out the window, he was laughing to himself.
"I've got some eggs I could whip you up," suggested Hutch, and Starsky heard him swallow a snicker.
"Or maybe," said Hutch quietly, turning to face him, "maybe I remembered to set out some steaks to thaw, with salad and garlic bread and wine and all of that."
Starsky felt the surprise through his whole body. Trust Hutch to plan a full course meal for 4 a.m. in the morning for a partner who loved to eat.
"Then again," the voice came slowly now, teasing, as Hutch turned away, "maybe I forgot."
As he pretended to play with the rearview as they stopped at a red, Starsky smiled. It sounded like Hutch had made dessert too.
Hutch piled the dirty dishes in the sink and went around pulling the shades down over the mild winter sunrise. When the splashes of yellow hit his face, he was energized for a moment and seriously considered staying up to finish various and assorted things that had gone undone during their recent stakeout. But if he didn't sleep now, he would be one of the walking dead come sunset.
He closed the door on the greenhouse and tiptoed past the couch where all he could see of his partner were the fingertips of one outstretched hand and a tuft of dark hair. Starsky had dropped off to sleep like a heavy rock will sink to the bottom of a still pond. And he would remain that way till Hutch woke him. Of course, it wouldn't take more than his name, but until then, he was out.
Hutch stood there at the end of the couch, looking at the lump of covers that was Starsky. Crossed his arms and wondered at the vague feeling of disquiet that began to grip at him again. Going over to the door, he checked both locks; lifted the shade on each window and checked the locks there, and wandered over to the sink to wonder if he shouldn't do the dishes anyway.
If Starsky were awake he would see that Hutch was pacing and ask him, what's up? To which Hutch would hem and haw and finally come up with something that would satisfy them both. He stared at the sink, debating if he shouldn't go ahead and fill it with hot water, then decided he was really too tired, after all.
Was it their projected target, one Joshua Bright, that made him wish he had an extra pair of eyes and ears? Not to mention a full time assistant, made up of half him and half Starsky, to cover their tracks? Bright was well on his way to easing out creeping vines of power which reached into all facets of street culture, counter culture, sub culture, mainstream, and could provide just about anything illegal, immoral or unethical that anyone could think of. Compared to some, he was still small time stuff, but he was growing everywhere, like a bad weed or those traveling vines in the deep south.
Yeah, he realized as he wandered into the bathroom to brush his teeth, Joshua Bright made him nervous, and had done since Dobey had handed them the file on the man. Bright was going to be very hard to pin down. But Hutch had known that all along, so that couldn't be what was making him uneasy.
As he brushed his teeth, he stared at his tired refection in the mirror and wondered if the bad feelings came from being under so long without a break. He smiled through a mouthful of toothpaste, realizing that being under was just about his favorite part of being a cop. It was only their third or fourth time under, but he found himself enjoying it more each time. Especially when he could play the part of someone he absolutely was not. Someone who was so far away from who he was, that he could be as flamboyant and goofy as he wished, although this time they were under at a pretty low key, almost as themselves. So it wasn't that.
Hutch discovered the next night that it was the joke itself that he hated. At first it had been funny: Starsky would saunter across the bar, inviting looks and comments, and he would fend off all approaches with a toss of his head.
"I'm with him," he would say then, his eyes sparkling, throwing in a little hip toss.
Hutch nearly fell off his barstool the first time he saw that one, spilling beer over his jeans as he tried to swallow the laughter. Then a swell of possessiveness expanded in his chest, because, of course, it was true. Starsky really knew how to throw himself into the part, the tight jeans, skimpy t-shirt, and that worn leather jacket that somehow skimmed across the line of his hips at just the right place. And the way he moved, as Hutch began watching him with "gay" eyes, was something else.
Hutch felt he did the role well, too. And it was almost fun to pretend, if the situation about the drugs weren't so dark. He would, in front of the mirror at home, practice tying a bright scarf around his neck, copying the way he saw real gay men do it. As a signal, I am here. I am one of you. It seemed to work too, most of the clientele in the bar had come up and talked to him a time or two. They were regulars by this time.
Hutch sipped at his beer, and wondered when Starsky was going to show up. He'd said he'd had an errand; Hutch figured he'd forgotten to pay his rent or something.
"There he is," he heard someone say. Several heads, including his own, turned to watch Starsky enter the bar.
He did it in the way he always did, dressed in jeans and his leather jacket; nothing special. But Hutch noted that almost all eyes were upon his partner. Looking at Starsky in a way that Hutch had reserved doing from behind his sunglasses, when wondering what it was that all those women saw. What they thought when they were looking at him like they wanted to eat him alive.
That's when it stopped being funny. That's when he figured out what had been troubling him. They'd been under too long, and something that had long been precious and dear to him was being sullied and trampled under uncaring feet. Nobody looked at Starsky that way, like he was something that could be owned. Starsky was his own person and what had been unimportant the first time or even the second, to deepen their cover, was no longer the joke when someone else, some stranger, began looking at Starsky like he was a thing instead of a person. His friendship with Starsky was something like the Rock of Gibraltar to him; he couldn't bear to see anyone mess with it. Not even, not especially, in the line of duty. Some things weren't worth it. And nothing was worth messing with what he felt for Starsky. He couldn't even begin to acknowledge the uncomfortable realization that he himself had looked at many a female that way.
But Starsky continued to use it, that maleness, that sexual draw, continued to pull the clientele of the bar in. Practically the only person not to come and chat Starsky up was the real child pornographer. Even Joshua Bright began to make noises about being interested in doing business with them. Hutch felt that Bright thought any deal might include some private time with Starsky.
When Starsky reached his side, he grabbed him by the elbow. "Would you tone it down a little?"
Starsky pulled the elbow away and jabbed Hutch in the stomach with it. "Why should I worry, you'll be here ta protect me; defend my honor."
"You're no virgin princess, sweetheart," said Hutch, dryly.
"An' you're no knight, either."
Hutch tried to relax his chest by letting out a lungful of air and turned away on his barstool.
"Don't do that!" exclaimed Starsky. "You been doin' that for more than a week now. Two weeks, even. Watsamatta, somthin' bugging you?"
Bugging me, thought Hutch. The voice in his head sounded more mild than he felt, but if he sounded calm there, maybe his voice would be the same.
"Not sure," he said, taking a swig of his beer. There had been quite a lot of beer swilled over the past month and this had to be the most watered down slop ever. Even Coors was better. "Maybe it's taking too long to get to Bright. He's our man."
Ever predictable, Starsky's face brightened. "Hey, I know. I'll come on to him, subtle like, an' then you come over, all angry. Then, we'll make like the only thing that'll mollify you will be a deal. Then, we bust him!"
Hutch stared his partner straight in the face. He knew his expression was telling Starsky exactly what he thought of that idea; he only hoped it wasn't conveying the fact that he thought Starsky was behaving like a moron.
Starsky knew, that evening and the next, that what was bothering his partner had very little to do with Bright, if anything. It had been that tell-tale release of air, like a runner catching his breath. Hutch did that only when agitated and even though his friend's answer had seemed logical enough at the time, Starsky had caught him doing it several times. But he couldn't ask him again and again. Hutch would either give him the same answer each time, or a totally different one each time, none of which would be the real issue. Besides which, poking at him like that would only cause Hutch to explode. Starsky had seen the demise of several girlfriends who had caught on to that bit of information way too late.
He swiveled on his barstool to lean back, resting his elbows on the counter. His beer, his second beer, remained untouched. Even he had to admit that too much of a good thing was bad. He wondered if he'd ever, of his own free will, order another beer ever again. Or if the stale beer nuts, once a wonderful accompaniment, would ever—
Starsky looked up to see Joshua Bright walking over towards him, a perfectly straight line as bar patrons moved briskly out of his way. He made himself look casually around and located Hutch over by the pinball machine, pumping away at the buttons like a madman.
"Hey?" asked Bright as he came to a stop at Starsky's side.
"'lo," replied Starsky.
"'lo," said Bright, nodding, and for a second, Starsky got the impression that Bright was really quite shy and unused to making conversation with a stranger. He had to remind himself that this was the man he and Hutch were after. This was the man who had masterminded the sale of underage prostitutes imported from Asia, this was the man—
"May I . . ." Bright was indicating Starsky's drink, and his raised eyebrow seemed the most courteous of questions.
"Naw," said Starsky, hoping he could feel as casual as he sounded. "I'm all right."
"Perhaps some nachos from the grill?"
Of its own accord, Starsky's mouth began to water. Of course, even for as simple a gift as nachos, Bright would want repayment of some kind. Even if he would soon be behind bars and the debt null and void anyway.
"No thanks," he said. "Thanks though."
"Maybe you'll change your mind," said Bright ordering them anyway.
Starsky got the impression that the guy at the counter was going to practically run back to the kitchen and make them himself, he seemed so agitated. He had seldom seen such a burly guy snap to attention that way. The nachos arrived in due time, and Starsky looked at them, his stomach growling. Nachos and beer, unlike any stakeout he'd ever been on. And it looked as if nobody had skimped on the cheese either. However, he and Hutch never went on the take.
And of course, Hutch was away from the pinball game like a shot. Walking over towards them, shoulders forward like a predator staking out his territory. Face glowering, so jealous, for real, that for a moment Starsky had to hide his smile.
"Yes?" Hutch said to Bright, as if Bright had asked him a question. He did not help himself to the treats either, Starsky noticed, and something dangerous sparked in the blond's eyes. Instead he pushed the dish away as if out of Starsky's reach, though they both knew full well and good that Starsky had never had any intention of eating them. "None for you," he said softly, glancing at Starsky briefly. "You'll spoil your appetite."
Bright smiled at this, and appeared not to take it as an insult. "Hear you fellows got some business for me," he said instead. "White business."
Way obvious, Starsky noted.
"Five bigs per kilo." Hutch's voice was bald and bare, his distaste showing, at least to Starsky. God, they'd been under so long.
Bright drew them back to "his" table, a sign that they'd made it inside the ring if the local big boss was dealing with them personally, and he brought out a sample. Hutch motioned for Starsky to test it, and though there was a baggie of it in plain sight, no one paid any attention to it or them. For a moment, Starsky had the feeling that the drug problem was going to simply escalate, and no amount of undercover work was ever going to eradicate it completely. Then he shrugged and said, "It's all right," and fell against Hutch, his job over.
Hutch's arm fell across his chest and they both looked at Bright evenly.
"If you can promise us this quality in the future," rumbled Hutch's voice through Starsky's ribs, "we can plan on doing some business."
"My quality is always superior," said Bright.
Yeah, yeah, thought Starsky. As will be your accommodations in San Quentin. But it was only his ego talking. They had a long way to go before the LAPD would have enough to book this idiot.
He found Bright's eyes on him, "gay" eyes, appraising him, asking him with one of those raised eyebrows. The question itself was unspecific, but what mattered were his intentions. Starsky jolted as he suddenly wondered how far the department would expect him to go with this. And Bright was not unattractive, simply so overpowering that Starsky wasn't sure what he thought of the idea.
Could I do it with a man? All that red hair. What does a guy have to get around here to get a commendation?
Which of course was not why he was in police work.
He was about to fend Bright off with a yawn or some other previous engagement, when Hutch's arm tightened around him. A warm band across his ribs, large hand curved around the bone of his hip. He looked down at the silk-clad arm, black silk, Hutch's flesh pale beneath the cuff. Then Starsky did something he'd done a thousand times before: laid his head down in the warm hollow of Hutch's neck. A movement as natural as breathing, as right as an orange sunset on a dusky sea. But never before with an audience, never before with the intention of a message: do not touch, I am taken. A sly look to Bright, and the scene was over, relationship established. He pulled away, smiling to himself.
Oscar time, he told himself.
"Later, babe," said Hutch as a codicil. "Let me finish business with Mr. Bright here."
"So," said Bright, leaning back, "is he your boy, or are you his?"
Before he could even tense, the back of Hutch's hand began stroking his collarbone, and the body beneath him seemed deceptively calm. But one move, one twitch, Starsky knew, and Hutch's arm would clamp down on him like a shot. He looked down to see the veins start to stand up in Hutch's wrist.
"Nobody's anybody's boy," replied Hutch softly. "What you see is true love."
"Yeah," added Starsky, more to let his partner know he understood than to donate his two cents worth, "true love."
"Ah," said Bright, smiling and nodding, "I see."
The matter was dropped, promises of money were exchanged, dates set, schedules for future deliveries. Hutch reached out a free hand to Bright. "We'll be seeing you."
By the time they arrived at Hutch's, Starsky was yawning so hard, he thought his eyeballs were going to pop out. He followed his partner up the stairs, hitting the couch the only thought in his head. In the door he went without a word, heading for the closet where the extra blanket and pillow were kept.
"Don't you ever go home?" asked Hutch from behind him.
Starsky stopped and turned. Hutch hadn't moved from the door, only folded his arms across his chest, glowering.
"What's the matter with you?" demanded Starsky. He was tired too, damnit, and really in no shape to deal with some bizarre mood.
Hutch unfolded his arms, his hands moving soundlessly in front of his face, head slightly bowed.
Starsky moved closer. "Hutch?"
"Man." It was a whisper. "I'm so tired, you know?"
Starsky nodded in return. "Yeah."
"Touching you was no big deal, you know, but with an audience . . . "
Those dark eyes were closed as Hutch trailed off. It was a lot to deal with.
"We won't have to do that again," assured Starsky, "not with an audience, anyway."
Hutch nodded, silent.
"Why don't you go to bed. We can talk about it later."
It was odd, sometimes, how Hutch would just give into him, do what Starsky told him. Usually when he was tired, or had been sick, or through some heavy street crap. He was especially malleable then, and Starsky suddenly realized that that had been when Van had gotten to him. After a day on the streets, when he got home. It was a wonder Hutch had lasted as long as he did.
"It's gonna be okay, Hutch," he told the retreating back as the other headed towards the bathroom. "Everything's gonna be okay."
Starsky eyed the article that he had located on page ten after the furniture warehouse ads.
Its placement in the paper, the dry details, the length of the thing, only two more paragraphs and the fact that his name wasn't even mentioned in conjunction with Hutch's, told Starsky how important their last case had been. Not very. Not sensational or lengthy enough, he supposed. He wondered if Hutch had seen it yet.
Starsky paused halfway to a bite of a jelly donut as Hutch came barreling from Dobey's office. Dobey barreled after him. Hutch had seen it alright.
"It was a million dollar bail bond, Hutchinson!" Dobey yelled back helplessly.
Both Starsky and Dobey watched open mouthed as Hutch flung open the door to the hallway.
"Didn't you see that article? How 'bout our report? One million in drugs through Mike's Bar ALONE! It's a drop in the bucket to him!" Hutch howled. "Who knows how much he's gotten from all his other dives; he'll never show up in court now!" He slammed the door behind him; the window vibrated.
Starsky and Dobey looked at each other, knowing that Hutch was right. And he was. Joshua Bright, owner of Mike's and a dozen other "dives" and out on bail did not show up for court.
Starsky stood up and gave Dobey the rest of his donut. "Here ya go, Cap'n. Don't forget to chew."
He headed out the door after his partner, catching sight of the blond head just as it went out the front doors of the station.
He lost him on the elevators and went to sit in his car in the parking lot, not starting the engine. What was he thinking? Treasure hunts were his best thing! Besides which, Hutch needed to be found, but good. He thought about driving up to Pine Lake anyway, or to that resort where Hutch liked to pick up ski bunnies. But it was too late for trout, too early for snow.
"I am Hutch," he said, half aloud. "Now, where would I go?"
The thing was to realize that the whole situation with Joshua Bright had been weird and to connect that with what Hutch would do about it.
He closed his eyes and tilted his head back, realizing he looked like he was napping. Picturing Hutch at his most relaxed was very soothing . . . Hutch playing his guitar, long fingers moving over the strings; Hutch fishing at Mirror Lake or cooking over that ancient camp stove, humming under his breath; Hutch in his greenhouse, talking to his plants. The two of them in the greenhouse, Hutch pulling off dead leaves from his Boston fern, spraying it with water and Starsky reading a true article about a boy who had found a blue pig. Hutch had suddenly gone off on a tangent about car payments. Car payments and interest rates which had nothing to do with something as fascinating as blue pigs, as far as Starsky could see.
But it brought to mind Hutch's face when he babbled passionately about something. His eyes would light up, cheeks flushed, and he would point and gesture, his face losing that eternal guarded silence. Starsky wished he knew the absolute secret of breaking through that remoteness, but he usually found that it happened without his realizing it. Only later would he remember the phrase or the question that had unlocked Hutch's vocal cords, something key to that one time only, something that set Hutch to talking a blue streak. Hutch in his greenhouse.
Starsky leaned forward to start the car, then paused.
That's too easy.
Yeah, but that's what he'd want you to think.
If Hutch was going to hide and sulk and feel somehow pissed off at everything in the world, the one place he'd go would be his very own jungle, his private Eden, his lair.
Starsky started the engine and shrieked out of the parking lot. He parked his car some blocks away, knowing that if Hutch was home he would recognize the sound of the engine, and walked casually down the sidewalk.
He stood beneath Hutch's window, the seafair wind of the early evening sliding past his ears. A movement through the fronds caught his eye.
Starsky mounted the stairs, took down the key and let himself in.
He found Hutch reclined on the chaise lounge, though he didn't look like he was relaxing at all. The second he saw Starsky, he shot to his feet, back to the wall, eyes glaring.
"What are you doing here?"
"Hutch," said Starsky calmly, "what is going on?"
"Nothing, go home."
"You call leaving without telling me where you're going nothing?"
"I needed to be alone."
"Alone? Without me?"
"Why aren't ya talkin' to me?"
"There's nothing to talk about." As if to prove his words, Hutch brushed past him rudely, as if the greenhouse were suddenly on fire. Starsky followed him.
"Fine," said Hutch, whirling to face him, as if Starsky had demanded yet again that Hutch tell him what was wrong. "This whole thing stank from the beginning." A broad forearm came out to underline his words. "Us against Joshua Bright; it was impossible from the start."
Starsky shook his head. "What are you talkin' about?"
"Don't you know?"
It was almost a snarl that Starsky saw on Hutch's lips, nostrils flaring as he inhaled, and his jaw dropping as he exhaled. He waited.
"They used us," said Hutch finally. "They used us, who we were, how we work . . . "
"The fact that we're friends?" prompted Starsky.
"More than that." Hutch was shaking his head now, as if he'd already explained everything and Starsky was now disagreeing with him. "We have a bond, a special bond, I.A. knows it, Dobey knows it, Special Investigations knows it. A bond that looks like love."
"It is love," said Starsky, his head going down, eyes still on Hutch. "We do care for each other."
Hutch lifted his head to look him straight in the eye. "It's more than that. So much more; man, sometimes it's the only thing that keeps me sane."
Starsky decided in a split second that he wasn't uncomfortable with the ground that his partner was now treading, only somewhat surprised. Surprised that a conversation that had been about the case was now about something more personal. Theirs was a friendship so carefully built, so unconsciously protected, that it hardly needed speaking of aloud. "Me too," he said softly in reply. "You keep me sane, too."
A soft little light flickered in Hutch's eyes, softened the edges of his jaw. Almost like he was grateful Starsky considered him a friend.
"But what I don't understand," said Starsky now, slowly, "is how our relationship relates to Bright, he—"
"It relates in every way, every possible way."
Now he was baffled and threw up his hands.
"Damnit, Starsky, listen to me. They sent us undercover in a gay bar, knowing that we would pass, that the way we are with each other would be the only cover we needed." Hutch blew out a huge lungful of air again and pulled his hand over his face.
"I kinda knew that goin' in, Hutch; I thought you knew."
"I DID know, but then you started with that 'gay' crap—"
An interruption was merited at this point, and Starsky struggled to keep his temper. He felt his voice deep in his chest. "Begging your pardon, but you were the one who said I was your date."
"Yes, I started it, I'm the one who said it first, but it was meant as a joke. A joke between you and me, something only we would know, like so many things between us. Something no one else would ever find out about. And then you used it, oh, so cleverly, to make our cover rocktight. You're with me." Hutch added with a snort. "Like you're ever not."
"It WORKED didn't it?" Starsky told himself he wasn't shouting.
Hutch shook his head, the tone of his voice making Starsky cringe. "Oh, only too well, my friend. You bandied yourself around that bar night after night, being mine, using our relationship so that we could buy drugs and pin Bright down. And it worked, we arrested him. Threw him in jail."
Starsky was afraid of what would come next. But he went ahead anyway. "And then he walked."
Hutch brought a tight fist to his own face, pushing it against his forehead. Then the fist dropped, and Hutch was completely pale. "Yes." His voice was soft. "He walked. And everything that we were, everything that we had, we allowed to be trampled on and used up was wasted."
Starsky found he was shaking. He'd had no idea that Hutch was feeling this way, and that bothered him even more than the fact that he'd not been able to pick up on it. "It didn't get wasted, Hutch."
His partner started to shake his head.
"It didn't. Listen to me—"
"The goddam, fucking LAPD can just forget me ever doing that again, do you hear me?"
"I will never, I repeat, NEVER, use you, or me, or US to pull an undercover mission again. We will never go in as ourselves. Are you listening? NEVER! They wasted everything that we were, they USED us and it didn't even work. We paraded our relationship in front of everyone in town and Joshua Bright isn't even in jail. Can you beat that?"
Hutch started laughing quietly in a way that Starsky did not like, then his words bubbled over themselves as if he suddenly found the whole thing uproarious. "He's not even in jail, and I held you out on a tether for people to gawk and gape and have them say, yup, they're lovers. It's priceless."
The blond threw up his hands and began to walk away. Starsky grabbed him by the elbow, not to turn him around, simply to stop him. He looked at Hutch's profile, that mutinous scowl of downturned mouth, the hooded eyes.
"I want you to listen to me, just for a second," began Starsky quietly. "I'm only gonna say this once. No matter what we did, no matter who we seemed to be," he sliced the air with his free hand and caught Hutch's eye following its mark, "all of that was just our cover. Ya got me?"
The response was a mere relaxing of the scowl, and Hutch lifted his face to stare at the far wall. "They used us up," said Hutch.
"They didn't touch nothin' of who we are, they'll never get at how we really feel about each other."
The blond shrugged, moving his arm out of Starsky's grasp. "Yeah, but you were in my lap, and Bright probably thought you belonged there, and that 'boy' thing, it just . . . "
"Maybe I do belong in your lap," replied Starsky easily, now that the main storm seemed to have passed, "who knows? I can think of worse places to be."
He smiled as he caught Hutch's mouth twitch. "My point is, it don't matter what Bright thought, what anybody thinks for that matter. We are how we are, and if they don't like it . . . "
" . . . they can shove it," filled in Hutch.
"Right. And as far as using me up, I'm the motherlode, here. It can't be done."
Hutch's face and body relaxed all at once, though Starsky found that his own shoulders were still bunched up tight. He took in a deep breath. "Listen, why don't we—"
Hutch held up his hand. "We can't. I went out of the station like a bat out of hell, and you probably came after me like a shot out of a cannon. We've been off the streets for over four months and Dobey needs us. We have to go back to work sometime."
"We can pick up something on the way in, okay?"
It wasn't okay. There seemed more there that Hutch had wanted to say, more about their relationship. More about who was whose boy here, and, on the heavier side, why Hutch felt it had been wasted. But the walls had come down and Hutch was in one of his "I'll say anything you want, but I'm still not saying anything" moods that came and went with surprising regularity.
And Starsky began to wonder exactly what it was that Hutch felt had been wasted. Later, he promised himself. Later.
Later turned out to be the drive home. Hutch, behind the wheel, had not spoken a single unnecessary word all day, except for the inscrutable command of "coffee?" when Starsky had gotten up to get himself some. And Starsky felt he could not let it go on any longer.
"So you gonna tell me what's buggin' ya?"
The question was followed by silence, then a sigh.
"You know, we've grown close . . . " started Hutch.
"And I never thought of myself as gay, not like those guys down at Mike's anyway."
"Or Blaine, right. That's a lifestyle—"
"Or a podium."
Hutch nodded again. Starsky could see he was having some difficulty getting all of this out; unlike Starsky, Hutch had to pull out honest feelings with king-sized meathooks, and yank real hard. At least it seemed that way to Starsky. He decided to lend a hand.
"Ya know, Hutch, none of this is news to me."
A blue-eyed look was spared him. "It's not news to me either, Starsk, but I wasn't planning to bring it up like this."
"Consider it brought up."
Hutch took one of those deep breaths of his where it still seemed as if he hadn't pulled in enough air. Then he let it out all in a rush, and followed it by an earnest moment of leaning over the steering wheel, looking for the non-existent oncoming traffic. Muscles twitched in the broad forearms as his partner gripped the wheel and twisted his fists forward and back.
"Damnit, Starsky, give me a minute."
"Ya want me to go first?"
"There's nothing to go first on, for pete's sake, we both know how we feel." The blond's voice was hot.
"So what's the problem?"
"It all got ruined, some dumbshit remark by me," he seemed extra mortified on this point, Starsky noted, but he kept his silence. "That date thing, you know . . . "
"I was going to get comfortable with the thought in my head, work on it, work it slow, but doing it, ya know?"
He turned to Starsky, and all at once let go of the steering wheel and turned to face his partner across the bench seat. It wouldn't take a stranger to see how much Hutch had worked himself up over this, the skin beneath the blond's eyes was tense and tight.
"I know," said Starsky again, although he didn't really. Didn't understand why Hutch seemed to think it was a problem. What Hutch felt for him was never a problem, at least not to Starsky.
"Then we became some damn spectacle, and anything I had wanted to do was suddenly on some stupid stage, all for the fucking LAPD—"
Hutch broke off suddenly, and if nothing else had clued him in as to how agitated Hutch was, the swearing would have done it right then. His partner, of the superior education fame, used long words, big sentences and eschewed profanity except when undercover.
"Hutch, I'm telling you, and listen to me for a minute. The undercover thing is all over; it's just us now. Me and thee. Whatever we are, however we wanna be, that's just between us. Ya got me?"
"Got ya," replied Hutch, but he still seemed unhappy.
Hurt-comfort-hurt-comfort-hurt-comfort . . . the litany echoed in Hutch's head as he struggled to catch his breath as the onslaught suddenly halted. The hurt came with each blow of leather to his head, his back, his legs. Curling up into a ball hadn't helped, wedging himself into a corner, hadn't either. They simply pulled him out, held him down and started all over again. From the beginning.
Of comfort, though, none existed. If Starsky had been there, hands would have patted his face, rubbed his shoulders, held him tightly. A voice would have asked him if he was okay, and then taken care of him when told the answer was no.
Everything was not okay; Starsky was no-where to be seen. Hutch couldn't figure out if that was good or bad.
"You'll die anyway, pig," said a voice, not Starsky's. "Might as well tell us something."
They strung his arms over his head, leaving the blindfold on. He shivered in the heat, realizing his chest was heaving and knowing he couldn't do anything about it. In his utter darkness, he could taste cement dust, blood from his mouth, and smell his own sweat refusing to dry. Part of his pants leg was in tatters and the belt that once held them up was long gone. It was just him, his jeans and his bare feet.
There was suddenly a pair of lips against his ear.
"While you can still hear me, I'll tell you something you might want to know."
It was a different voice, Hutch was sure, than that which had been questioning him for the past . . . days? He felt something tingle up his neck.
"You're going to die here. It's only a matter of time. Alone, like an animal in the dark."
He grit his teeth together and pulled his head back. Firm hands clamped themselves on his skull and around his jaw.
"Why?" Hutch ground out, "why if I'm going to die anyway, should I tell you anything at all?"
They were large hands and strong, calloused. Hot. They shook him gently as if to chide him. "You will go with less pain; you will go quickly."
The hands released him. The voice and several pairs of feet disappeared behind the sound of a closing door.
Hutch jerked on the tether that bound his hands over his head, growling. Sartre didn't know shit. Hell wasn't other people, like Hutch had previously always found true, hell was dying alone like an animal in the dark.
Alone, alone, always alone.
Except for Starsky.
He'd lived this way all of his life, did he have to die this way too?
The feeling was gone from his arms completely now, though he could feel every inch of the rest of his body. It was as if he was on fire except for his hands, which, tied, were raised in grotesque supplication. Sweat traced its way behind an ear, and he longed to push back his hair that was tangled in the band over his eyes and itched.
He wasn't really sure what they wanted from him anymore. The first day he had know with crystal clarity that they had been involved in the Mike's Bar drug ring and that they wanted names. With equal clarity he had been determined they weren't going to get it. At least not from him.
He had been clean then, unstreaked with blood and sweat, his throat not raw from screaming, his skin unflecked with bruises and cuts. He hadn't been thirsty or hungry or tired or floating above his body from too many blows to the head. Nobody but nobody was going to coerce a member of the LAPD with pain and threats of death to give them any kind of information.
But that had been days ago. Now he wasn't so sure.
When they came back, a long, dark time later, years it seemed, he suddenly felt every strand of hair on his body that had enough energy stand straight up. His body shook as a single pair of footsteps approached. The sweat had finally dried on his chest and the hand placed there felt almost cool. He felt a motion over his head and found that his arms could fall forward, the rope that had supported them snaking around his wrists in a friendly way. But there was nothing he could do about it. Nothing he could do as two hands clamped themselves around his upper arms. Nothing as he felt those lips at his ear.
"Can you tell me now, Officer Hutchinson? Can you? Who worked with you, who helped you?"
He tried to pull away but the hands held him firm.
"C'mon, just one name and it will all be over."
It occurred to him suddenly that if they knew his name, which they did from its frequent and polite usage over the past days, then they would know all the official information about him, about the case. Why did they have to know from him?
A hand was stroking his cheek and Hutch ducked his head. There was only one person whose name he could remember, anyway, one face that floated in the blackness. The name rose in his throat though he swallowed against it.
"What was that, officer?"
Such a gentle question.
Something moved forward from him of its own volition, its own free will. He was screaming when he told them what he thought they wanted to know.
A hand reached up to pat his face. "Thank you Officer Hutchinson, thank you."
"Hutch? C'n you hear me, Hutch?"
It was a voice from long ago and far away. A voice of the deep city, and it came with hands that cradled him in a lap he'd known once in a dream.
"You all right?" Warm, gentle hands on his face. "Hell, I know you're not, but could you tell me you are?"
There was a chest against which his head rested and it lifted him and laid him down with each breath. The hardness of a leg was underneath him and an arm was flung across his middle. He caught the scent of someone else's sweat and underneath that, Ivory soap. An elusive tingle brought his mind screaming to life.
He opened his eyes. The blindfold was gone. Starsky's tentative smile was the first thing he saw. A circle of dark hair going everywhichway. A bruise alongside his temple.
"Looks like we're in this together, buddy. At least we're together."
Hutch rolled away, his definition of hell changing once again.
Starsky tried to hold onto Hutch as he shakily got to his feet but it was more than he could do to add to the bruises already there. It wasn't like either one of them could go very far.
Hutch placed his palms along the cement as he pushed himself up, leaving damp marks. He bowed his head between his upraised arms.
"What have I done?" came the whisper. It was ragged, catching in Hutch's throat.
Starsky moved forward, but the instant his hands touched one arm, Hutch was knocking him away, whirling away to stand with his back in a corner. He tilted his head, half closed eyes staring at Starsky before turning away.
"Hey," said Starsky, his voice squeaking, "at least we're together."
There was no answer.
It was no good. His partner continued to lean into the wall, pressing against the cement as if to move somehow into its pocked surface. When Starsky moved in closer, Hutch jerked away, half of him coated with cement dust and grit. Waves of shuddering rolled over his taunt form, reminding Starsky of someone in heroin withdraw. Pangs of alarm lifted his arms, a glare from Hutch lowered them to his sides.
Four days of searching had brought him to this. At least Hutch wasn't dead, but he'd never expected this turning away. Four days after finding spilled groceries outside of his apartment, four days of round the clock attentiveness. He'd never expected to be rebuffed.
"Please what?" snapped Hutch, looking at Starsky at last, nostrils curling. "Please Hutch, I'd rather not be here, please Hutch, old man, I'd rather not die?"
"Whadja mean die? What do these turkeys want anyway?"
A sigh. A sigh that ended in a sob and Hutch raised his hands to his face covering his eyes. Bare arms and Starsky's eyes were riveted to the ladders of bruises there. He longed to move forward, move in close and lean into Hutch's shadow, but felt that Hutch, at this point, would simply move to the other side of the room.
"Talk to me," he said, hoping his voice was calmer than he suddenly felt. "What's going on."
Hutch dropped his hands and transformed into that still, quiet calm that enfolded him when things got really heavy, really bad. Later would come the explosion, the blond whirlwind that he knew and could deal with. But now, what could Starsky do in the eaves of the sudden quiet that filled the room? Huge bells of alarm began to explode in his head, filling the void.
"Do you remember Joshua Bright?" Hutch asked as calm as if they had both been in the squad room with the file in front of them.
Starsky nodded slowly, not liking the direction this was taking.
"Well, this is where he goes when he's out on bail. He wants the people responsible."
Hutch grabbed his wrist. "Damnit, Starsky, don't you know what they'll do to you? They'll string you up and make you tell. You'll give them information just to make the pain stop."
"I would never do that!" He felt indignant that Hutch thought he would fall that easy.
The hand fell away from his wrist, eyes a second ago locked with his turned away. "No," said Hutch. "No, you wouldn't."
"Hutch, what are you saying?"
"I didn't mean to do it."
"Didn't mean to what?" Starsky stepped closer but Hutch jerked away.
"Do you know how long have you been here, can you remember?" Starsky tried again.
"I don't know."
"You've been missing about four days; did you tell them something?" asked Starsky, shoving away the sudden quirky thought about how easy it was to translate the last 96 sleepless, frustrating hours into a single numeral.
There was silence and then there was this, so Starsky continued to push. "Anyone would have broken Hutch, with what you've been through."
"You wouldn't have," came the instant retort. "You said so."
Starsky waited, then gentled his voice. "Yes, I would have. Anybody would have."
Hutch burst out at him, pressing Starsky against the wall with his body, his hands pinning Starsky's arms.
"NO, you wouldn't have. You wouldn't have given them anything, least of all—"
Starsky interrupted him, pushing Hutch away. "Yes, I would have. After four days? I'm only human, Hutch, as likely to collapse in a puddle as the next guy; Hutch, it's okay. You shouldn't feel guilty for being human."
"Don't tell me what to feel!" snapped Hutch.
"I will if I want to!"
"Quit acting like this is some game. You're in here to die and you don't care!"
"But I do care!" Something rose up from inside him. "Do you think if you died that I want to live?"
The door banged open and Joshua Bright, his red hair glowing in the single light bulb, strutted in, three goons with Uzis behind him. They grabbed Starsky easily and Hutch realized that their last words to each other were angry ones.
"We'll take Hutchinson's boy here to another room for questioning. Officer Hutchinson has settled so well in this one."
Two things clicked into place in Hutch's mind at once. The first one, that 'boy' remark, seemed unimportant. The second was that they were taking Starsky away. They couldn't do that; it was not allowed.
He leaped at them, howling like a siren from the bottom of his lungs. Flew at the one who had the most solid hold on Starsky, ripping the Uzi out of his hands and sending it smashing against the cement. Punched him in the face with one fist and dug into the fingers of his grasp with the other hand. From behind, two pairs of arms wrapped themselves around him, pulling him away, lashing out with fists of their own.
And all the while, as he kicked and struggled, Starsky stood absolutely still, Joshua Bright's gun to his head, his arms already tied in front of him.
The light in his eyes was pure blue.
It became worse. Hutch lunged again, breaking free for a second and reaching for the nearest whoever, screamed, "TAKE ME! TAKE ME!"
"Sorry, Blondie," said Joshua as his men subdued Hutch. "We want your boy here."
Hutch froze for a second, watching the butt of a gun as it came down in slow motion at his head. He felt it, and staggering on his feet, thought that if they thought Starsky was his boy then they were probably thinking he should have been a better parent. His feet found the floor again as if he were a tightrope walker regaining his balance but by that time the door was shut and bolted and Starsky was gone.
He threw himself at the door, an all out body slam that jarred his spine into his skull. Pounded on it, howling till he thought his hands would burst. Then they did, spraying bright streaks across the dark grey of the door. Then they shut off the one bulb, leaving him in the darkness, a thousand aches stinging to life.
His hands found a corner somehow and Hutch pressed himself into it, shuddering from head to toe. Sartre had been wrong from the first. Hell was a room where Starsky had once occupied and been taken away. Hell was knowing it was all his fault.
In the silent darkness, when he came to, Hutch imagined that he had died. It was so dark, not even a sliver of light was coming in from under the door. It was like he'd gone to sleep and woke up mummified. Only the singing nerves of the back of his legs, and all the other hurts, told him that he was alive. As long as this went on, as long as he didn't move, nothing mattered. Nothing existed, save the slow rise and fall of his own chest, and he wasn't sure of that. The darkness absorbed everything, even himself.
Some time later, the door opened and something was thrown in. The flash of light was like a slap, followed by a low thud and a slam as the door was shut again.
Hutch shifted himself forward on his elbows, sweeping his right hand forward towards the direction of the sound of shallow breathing. Searching for Starsky in the darkness. He couldn't see anything, only brush his hand back and forth across the concrete in long half-circles. By the time he reached the body, his hand was stinging so badly he sucked on it to take some of the grit out. Spitting the other way in the darkness, he gathered Starsky into his arms and backed up till he was against a wall and folded him into his lap.
Starsky's shirtfront was horribly warm and damp. Hutch found his hands and fingers moving over his partner almost involuntarily, monitoring the other's breathing by the movements of Starsky's side against his chest, testing the spring of every muscle he could reach. Wondered if any differences in a face he knew so well could be detected by his fingertips. There was too much of something wet alongside of Starsky's head, and his left wrist seemed to be bent at the wrong angle, curling under like an overweighed flower. And when he ran his hands over Starsky's middle, the other gave a loan moan that raised the hairs on the back of Hutch's neck.
"Hutch?" asked voice.
"I'm here," said Hutch, feeling as if he were talking to himself.
Hutch bent forward, finding Starsky's face with his own. "I've got you," he said. "I'm here."
It the continuing silence, Starsky's breath was becoming more ragged, and a fresh gush of blood flowed warmly across his hand as it supported Starsky's back. And everything was black, always black.
If I die before I wake . . .
Hutch straightened to lean once again against the wall.
"D'n go 'way," said the small voice.
"I'm not going anywhere," said Hutch, feeling small. "I have to tell you something."
It had suddenly occurred to Hutch that they were both going to die and that Starsky would never know the reason. Which was hardly fair, since Starsky had always maintained that he never wanted to go without a fight. Which didn't make any sense either, since there was no way to fight this one, no way to make a way out. Starsky deserved to know; moreover, Hutch needed to tell him the truth. He needed Starsky's forgiveness.
"I have to tell you something," he said again, trying to draw a deep breath and failing.
"Tell," said Starsky.
He was a warm and quiet weight in Hutch's arms, his blood slick and drying on Hutch's fingers and wrists, his tousled hair wiry against Hutch's neck, and the scent of him blended by the copper tang of sweat and salt.
"It was me," he started, then realized that didn't make any sense, although it must have been him, otherwise how would they have known about Starsky?
"When they were torturing me, they promised me a quick and painless death if I gave them just one name." That part out, Hutch turned his face away as if Starsky could see him, could see his face. But in the darkness, silence followed.
"I . . . I gave them your name." It was so bare, there was no way Starsky could misunderstand him.
"They lied to ya," said Starsky. "You're still alive."
"I'm still alive," he conceded, "and you are with me."
"Why?" asked Starsky, "why did you do that?"
Hutch realized that Starsky was trembling, as if the shock of the pain were just settling in. And why indeed had Starsky's name been the only one he could supply? Surely someone else would have done, some other name that would have sent Bright and his men on a hunt for someone who didn't exist. Or who deserved to die.
"I . . . " Hutch ducked his head to swallow the tears that were forming in his throat. "I didn't want to die alone."
In the silence that followed, Hutch could feel Starsky's body shifting, turning in towards his own and Hutch instinctively folded him close. The tears were following anyway, despite what he could do. How could he have died with a stranger?
Hutch leaned down again, closer, his voice urgent. "I'm sorry."
It was inadequate, but Hutch felt the tug on his shirtfront and allowed himself to be pulled down even further.
"' forgive ya."
The tears rushed forth, a small waterfall in a desert of darkness. Starsky's uninjured arm was looping itself around him and Hutch bent down to kiss Starsky on the forehead. Only his lips found Starsky's temple and there was the gentle brush of eyelash against Hutch's cheek.
"I love you," he said.
That place of hard surfaces where no comfort had ever made itself known.
When one was rescued, Starsky had always thought, one should be wide-awake and exit on one's own feet. He remembered only vague things, bright lights, a blanket, and someone shouting. He'd thought it was Hutch and in a moment of clarity, opened his eyes and saw him sitting there, looking like death warmed over with gravy. An ambulance. And Hutch's determined face, pinched tight as they rocketed down some stretch of road. He tried to reach out his hand, but felt it slip against the blankets.
Sometime later Starsky had two moments of lucidity that seemed somehow incongruous with each other.
The first was of himself being placed on a gurney to be wheeled away, to an operating table obviously, though God only knew what was wrong with him. Everything was floaty and grey and the tart smell of Pine Sol was obnoxiously clear. He could somehow feel his eyelashes on his cheeks until he opened his eyes suddenly to see Hutch standing there.
There was blood on the side of Hutch's face, and it had left a coating down his neck, long dried and dark. His left eye was swollen almost shut and he seemed to be gritting his teeth and moving his jaw against a great deal of pain. Even his arms were shaking as he resisted the hands that were trying to pull him away. Someone was trying to maneuver a wheelchair beneath the long, unsteady legs, and someone else dressed in white was moving an I.V. pole in as close as they could. There seemed to be a lot of people trying to take Hutch away, but Starsky couldn't figure for the life of him why his partner did not allow it.
Hutch's mouth was moving, cords standing out on his neck as if he were shouting and Starsky began to realize that everything appeared as if in a silent film. The blond was straining against the grasps, ignoring the calmly moving mouth of someone in a lab coat, only looking at Starsky, jerking his head away from a restraining hand, jerking his arm away from someone else.
Don't they know, Starsky thought, that the only way to keep Hutch is to let him go?
Then Dobey appeared, his face dark and shining with sweat, tie askew, shirtfront dappled with stains. He started shouting too, Starsky could tell by the way his mouth was open, and the white coats and nurses and the person with the wheelchair all froze and turned to look at him. Then he said something else, quietly it seemed, looking only at Hutch. As one, the group nodded and everyone let go of Hutch and stepped out of his way.
Hutch moved forward, slowly, as if he were walking through thigh-high water. As he came closer, there were flecks of blood on his chin and streaks of it through his fair hair. It almost seemed to Starsky that someone had streaked Hutch with very dark and badly mixed water colors and splashed him with it at random, from bright red to dark brown and Starsky began to wonder how many shades blood could take on as it dried.
His partner bent closer till Starsky could feel the other's breath on his face, warm and gentle. Stiff, rough fingertips touched his cheek and soft lips brushed his forehead. Then the lips moved, still against his forehead, and Starsky strained to hear. It was like a silent message only between Hutch and Starsky's flesh, and Starsky moved his head up desperately. His and Hutch's eyes locked, and Starsky could feel not only his own chest rise and fall, but Hutch's too, they were that close.
Then Hutch was gone, just like that. Starsky wondered where he'd disappeared to, wondered why several doctors (or was it nurses?) were crouching beside his bed. And who was it they were lifting and settling in the wheelchair with the utmost care. His vision began to fade as someone settled a mask over his mouth and someone else injected his newly swabbed arm with something he hoped would kill the pain. The gurney was wheeled into somewhere else, and another sweet smell filled his lungs.
"Hu . . . ," he said.
"What was that?" asked one doctor. "Did he say something?"
"No," replied the anesthesiologist. "Sometimes they make funny grunting sounds when they go under."
"Oh," said the doctor.
The next moment of lucidity must have come some time later, for Starsky found himself in a white bed in a room with white walls. It made him feel white, and he could hear everything quite clearly, even sounds that seemed as if they should have come from a great distance, an impossible distance away. Like the sound of someone laughing, a gull over the ocean sighing over the arrangement of the sand, or the ocean itself, pulling chunks of earth back into the sea.
As he tried to breathe, tried to allay the aftereffects of being under, he felt a great weight on his chest. He decided it was a good idea to check and see if his bandages were too tight.
Upon opening his eyes, he saw someone with their forehead pillowed against his ribs, one bandaged hand across his thighs, the other unmarked one in a fist beside the bowed head. He couldn't see the face, only a swath of neck so pale that it seemed the person shouldn't be out of bed, let alone sitting at the bedside of someone else. Who would have such fair, shimmering hair, spilling untidily across the white sheets, almost as pale in places as the sheets themselves? He felt he should know.
Then he knew.
" . . . tch," he said, and the fair head lifted.
"Starsky," said the face, and as Starsky blinked several times, the face came into focus, and memory sharpened, and the great line of worry between Hutch's eyes became absolutely clear.
Hutch's butt had gone to sleep, but he refused to move. He'd positioned the chair just right out of line of sight of the window and if he moved they'd see him. They'd figure out where he was soon enough anyway, and then there'd be all hell to pay. But he had to stay on guard until Starsky came out of it. He'd read enough charts to know that his partner's condition was serious but not critical, and that had allowed him to relax a little bit. But Starsky hated, absolutely hated coming out from being under and Hutch was determined to stay until he made it. Not that he planned on sticking around afterwards. Starsky would understand.
Waiting for you.
There was no way they could go on as they had. He'd only told Starsky the truth because he'd imagined they were both going to die. A truth like that should never be spoken aloud or revealed in any way. It was the kind of information he had intended to keep secret, like the time he'd helped paint protest slogans on the high school gym wall. All the right clues had been there to tell anyone with enough brains who'd done it. And they'd kept coming close to the truth, but always managed to swerve away at the last, most nerve-wracking moment. Hutch thought he'd develop an ulcer over that one, but it turned out to be a nine-day wonder and a nice scar had formed over the memory and now he hardly had any guilt about it at all.
Hutch imagined that this secret would have taken a little longer to settle down and go away, and now it seemed it never would. When two people knew the same thing, it never went away.
He found himself staring at Starsky's arm. It looked much better now, much more like a human arm and much less like a grey and white chalk drawing.
It was half an hour later when Starsky's head dipped to one side and Hutch heard the dull sound of a dry throat moving. As fast as he could, he grabbed the nearest container, a small trashcan, and moved to the side of the bed. Starsky was raising himself up, blinking several times, but Hutch knew from past experience that his friend wasn't really awake yet. He managed to guide the other man's white-clad shoulders forward till Starsky was propped loosely on one elbow.
From behind him, the door opened, and a female voice asked sharply, "What are you doing in here?"
"Get me a damp cloth," Hutch snapped without turning around. He didn't care who it was.
He heard her footsteps doing just that, and he turned his attention to guiding the dark head over the trash can and cupped his hand around the back of Starsky's neck.
"Okay, buddy," he whispered, "go ahead."
Starsky vomited into the container, a liquid brown stream, involuntary, and his shoulders seemed to shrug apologetically.
"Go on, I got ya."
Starsky's body shuddered, the flow continuing in short violent spurts until Hutch was afraid that the new stitches were going to come apart. Then they stopped suddenly and Starsky sagged against his own forearm, moisture dappling his face, mucus trailing his upper lip.
"Gimme that cloth," Hutch snapped. He held out his hand without looking up. The nurse placed it quietly in his hand, and Hutch wiped Starsky's forehead with it first, then his nose, then his mouth, gently saying, "There, there. It's all done."
He handed the nurse the cloth and she took it.
"How did you know he was going to do that?"
Hutch looked up at her for the first time. At the moment, her concern was for the patient in the bed, but in a moment her attention would turn to the displaced patient on the floor on his bandaged knees.
"Every time he goes under," he said, "and comes back up, he throws up."
"Why wasn't I informed?"
Hutch looked at her again, saw the nametag, and realized that she was a doctor, and in fact had been the doctor that had done the work. Naturally she would feel totally responsible.
"I don't think, doctor," he replied, "that either one of us was in a condition to remember." He paused, and ducked his head. "We usually try to tell someone."
"Well, you're quite the friend to wait all this time for him to practically vomit all over you. Not many would."
How could he tell her that he considered it an honor? It sounded too weird. He only said, "Well, ma'am, that's what partners are for."
"Partners," she said in return. She seemed to understand everything it was meant to explain.
But it didn't stop her from suddenly scowling at him. "Get up."
Here it came. "But, doctor, you see, I have to . . . " Oh, he didn't really feel strong enough to resist her, especially if she called for some fresh young intern to help her shove him into a wheelchair and cart him off. He struggled to his feet, using the side of the bed to push himself to a stand. "Please, let me . . . "
She walked over to the wall and picked up the chair he'd been sitting in and moved it right next to the bed.
"Partners," she said again. "If you must stay, please let it not be on your knees on that cold floor."
Hutch's jaw dropped open.
"I'll let you stay until he wakes up again. Then you go back to your own room. Deal?"
He still couldn't say anything.
"I know you'll only sneak back down here if I don't let you stay, so let's be sensible, okay?"
It was almost too much. The kindness of strangers, and his jaw worked furiously against the feeling rising up in his chest. "Th-th-thank you."
With a wave, she was gone.
Hutch sat in the chair, settling his head on the bed against Starsky's side, resting his bandaged hand across his partner's thigh. Starsky had laid back down, practically asleep again. He did not know what he was going to do; his partner needed him so very badly now. Even after a week in the hospital, Starsky would need assistance at home, getting things set up and Hutch himself felt far too weary to make a dash for some faraway place.
I must get away but I can't leave.
Then he heard his name. Actually it was merely a single syllable of sound, but of such an intonation and coming from Starsky he knew it could only be his name. He turned his head, raising it slightly from the mattress.
Starsky's hair was dark against the white pillow, his eyes blue in his pale face. Some new lines had made their way there, scoring the flesh around his mouth and alongside his nose. As he struggled to sit up, Hutch reached and adjusted the pillow behind him, automatically, without thought. There was the scent of the bitter orange disinfectant hospitals use before operations and Hutch wrinkled his nose.
"Did I throw up already?" asked Starsky.
"Yeah," said Hutch, "yeah."
There was a bit of matter in the corner of Starsky's mouth and Hutch wet his thumb and wiped it away, then wiped his hand on his hospital robe.
"Hey," protested Starsky, not very loudly, "don't get your spit on me."
Hutch tried to return the smile in his voice. "What's a little spit between friends?"
It was really no use, he could not go on. Starsky's mouth was curved in a partial smile, as if being alive was enough, and Hutch wondered how he could be forgiven so easily.
Maybe deciding not to decide was to decide.
Dobey came by later that evening to visit both of them. He didn't seem surprised to see Hutch by Starsky's side. Hutch realized that he was there to give them a rundown on their rescue, the case in general. It was what he did every time, understanding that their need to know what was going on in the outside world as much an integral part of their recovery as medication and rest was. But Hutch didn't want anything more to do with it. Nothing more to do with Joshua Bright, with putting himself and, sweet Jesus, his partner at risk, with anything to do with going undercover.
Starsky settled back against his pillow and waited for the euphoria of the medication to seep through his body. Hutch had promised to sneak him a root beer if he took all the pills in the white cup, and he had, one by one, waiting for the smile of approval when he was finished. It never appeared. But Dobey did, settling himself in a too-small chair, handing the flowers he'd obviously bought in the gift shop downstairs to Hutch, who laid them offhandedly on the bed tray.
"I want to give you the rundown on this case," began Dobey without aplomb, "but there isn't much to tell."
Starsky, who was looking with as much interest as he possibly could, given the fatigue that was creeping up on him, felt Hutch sigh.
"We have one untraced phone call that we got from one of Bright's boys who decided he didn't want to be implicated in the death of a cop and told us how we could find you. But that's it. We can't locate any of the persons involved in your abduction; although from your testimonies, we have a good chunk of information that will help send them up river . . . "
"If you find them," said Hutch, his voice dark.
Dobey seemed to catch it too, and it felt like an irksome darkness to Starsky, who began to hear things as if in a great echo chamber.
"Listen, Hutchinson, we will find them. It's only question of time. What I'm really worried about is you two."
Starsky realized he must have raised his hand to motion to them, but found he had to blink several times to focus.
"Don't worry about me," said Hutch. Starsky felt a hand on his arm. "Starsky got the worst of it."
"Both of you are going to receive as much counseling as it takes on this one. It was no ordinary abduction. I can figure how they got to you; your name was in the paper. But I'll be damned if I know how they got to Starsky. I guess they must have figured he was your partner and nabbed him too."
If he'd been more alert, Starsky knew he would have felt Hutch stiffening, even if he were miles away. But he was being rolled in a piecrust, and stuffed into a soothing, comfortably warm oven. Dobey was wrong, as usual, he didn't know anything about it.
"No counselors," he heard Hutch say, "all they want is talk, talk, talk, and nothing gets solved. Ever."
Dobey's reply was vague and mumbled.
"Talk, talk, talk, talk . . . ." continued Hutch.
Hutch, Starsky said to himself, you ever realize that sometimes you sound just like a broken record?
Just then, someone turned the heat up in the oven, and it became comfortable enough for him to fall asleep.
Hutch checked himself out of the hospital early the next morning. With a bottle of pain pills in his jacket pocket, he was going to feel just fine, and lying on his back in a semi-private room was not going to help him heal faster. Well, actually one could call it checking out, only the nurses would never know he'd left until they came to collect the breakfast things, and even then they might assume he was in the bathroom until someone came to take a blood sample, or whatever. And he'd been in this particular hospital any number of times, either himself in a bed or visiting someone else. Usually Starsky. He knew where the service elevators were, which attendants were too stupid to realize they had a patient walking out on them, and where to catch a cab so that everyone who was supposed to be taking care of him wouldn't know.
Mounting the numerous steps to his apartment wasn't as hard as it should have been, but a double dose of the pills had taken care of that. It had only tired him out, but he supposed he'd pay for that later. Very much later, if the medication held out. He'd only planned a shower and a long, midmorning nap, and started pulling out something clean to wear. Something that didn't smell like hospital. After all, he wasn't expected back at work for another week and even then it would only be for deskwork at the station. Then he found himself pulling out several changes of clothes, clean underwear, an extra sweater, his sneakers, and throwing them all on the bed. Pulled out a duffle he kept stashed in the closet and stuffed everything into it.
Where are you going?
He didn't know.
You're not leaving, are you?
He didn't know that either.
What about Starsky?
"I'll be back when he gets out of the hospital," he promised the air.
Hutch had always thought that L.A. should be covered with horrible weather in wintertime, like Duluth had always been. Grey, foggy, cold, miserable. But it wasn't. The sun was shining, there was a shy breeze from the beach, and his head felt light as he tossed the duffle in the back seat of the LTD. He headed vaguely towards the bank, withdrew a lot of money and filled the car with gas. It was perfect driving weather, not hot, not too sunny, just bright enough and with enough bite in the air to make driving with the windows down somehow a necessity.
When Hutch had driven as far as he could until his body started to cramp up at noon, he pulled off into the first beach motel that he saw. There weren't many left; any still standing after the Public Beach Act were relics from the fifties and considered local landmarks. His trail had led him to the Blue Sky Motel, which surely had escaped demolition by a scant year or two. It was terribly ugly, barely following Warhol, and missing the Art Deco revival so far it was almost ghastly. He barely made it to his room after checking in ("Plenty of room so early in the season, sir.") and tried to imagine that he'd come to the edge of the world rather than the end of his rope.
The room itself was in pink and brown, with some recent updating that showed in the small avocado green fridge. He hardly saw this as he tossed his duffle bag on the chair and flung himself on the bed.
I'm going to stay here forever, he thought. And not get up.
Of course, five minutes after lying absolutely still, his knees and legs began to cramp up so bad he found himself rolled in a ball with sweat dappling his forehead. So he had to get up and throw some pills down his throat, followed by a swallow of warm water.
I'm not taking all of these, he told himself. I'm not even thinking about it.
Of course he wasn't.
After the heroin fiasco of earlier years, he'd tended not to take any medication at all, not even aspirin for a headache, so the pain pills began to kick right in. He'd never mentioned this reticence, not even to Starsky, as he somehow felt foolish at his own weakness. But even aspirin was too close to becoming a junkie again, and that was just too much weight to fling on Starsky again, let alone anyone else. And that was the problem wasn't it?
"Let me tell you, Starsk," he said aloud, easing himself back onto the bed with stiff arms.
Let me tell you about you.
Those men had beaten Starsky to a black and blue pulp, torn up the ligaments in his arm . . . Hutch shuddered at the thought of blood on his hands. In more ways than one. And it had been Hutch's fault. No one who knew the truth could deny that. No one who knew, that is, that being merely Starsky and himself. Bright didn't even know how much Starsky meant to him. Probably considered Starsky someone Hutch had had it in for. Never even gave him a second thought after he'd thrown him into Hutch's arms; a mere exercise in skillful pummeling for his boys.
His boys on Hutch's boy.
Not my boy, Hutch snarled in his head. Not anybody's boy.
Of course Dobey had no clue. Not at all. Had only imagined that somehow Bright's gang had been clever enough to pick up Starsky on their own, when his name had never been mentioned. Not in the bar, not in the paper, not ever released to the public. Only by Hutch, only to Bright.
Didn't I? he asked himself. Wasn't it me?
It had to have been.
A woozy light began to fill his eyes as he started to feel less of his legs and more the weight of his lids. But it was an oblivion filled with an image of himself standing next to Starsky. Putting his arm around the dark haired man's shoulder and drawing him close. It was a scene he remembered clearly from . . . well, it could have been any of a number of occurrences. It tended to flash in his mind at odd moments and he'd never concentrated on it before, figuring he knew where it came from. Only now he didn't. And behind it, suddenly, as if reflected in a series of mirrors all lined up, all marvelously lit, and perfectly clear, were others. And in each one he was reaching for Starsky, or Starsky for him, offering comfort, supporting each other with words or touches, sometimes simply with the mere closeness of their bodies.
Where did the love enter into all this? Looks like love, he'd said. It is love, Starsky had replied, eyes dark.
I'm such a liar.
He had never cared for Starsky. And if Starsky had cared for him, it was under some false assumption.
He wiped at his face, his hand coming away wet at the palm. As he turned his face into the pillow, he caught sight of the squat avocado green fridge, glinting in the direct light as it shone through the window.
Jeezus, that's ugly.
It was good to pass out.