Seagulls were the noisiest creatures in creation, Hutch was beginning to believe. And weren't they supposed to be asleep in the middle of the night?
He had thought it would cool off the later it got, but the breeze still felt like it was coming from the mouth of an oven, and he was still sticking to the sheets and his pajama bottoms. The damned couch wasn't conducive to sleep in the first place, especially for someone his size.
Starsky was also restless, judging by the way he was tossing and turning, reminding Hutch of his presence. There was no more than twelve feet between them -- too close and too far away.
It was wreaking havoc with the cardinal rule Hutch had been forced to formulate. Whatever happens, however many times it happens, it's unique to those times, isolated, sufficient unto itself. Outside of that, no fantasies, no imagery, no substitutes, no dreams. It was another one of those things one couldn't play at without getting burned, so no careless games. It was the only way he could control it and keep it from spilling over into the rest of his life.
However, not allowing fantasies was one thing -- how did one get away when suddenly reality was too real, too close? What had started as a perfect morning had quickly become overloaded with tension and had deteriorated into a day of uncomfortable silences interspersed by ill-tempered comments.
Hutch rolled to his stomach. Not that the position was more comfortable, but it was at least a change within the confinement of the couch.
He remembered a play he had taken Van to once. His wife had not been pleased to find herself in a tiny, rundown theatre that catered to poor intellectuals, and she said Jean-Paul Sartre's obscure existentialism bored her. No Exit had been a ponderous play about three people who couldn't exist with each other, but had nevertheless been thrown together for eternity into a room they couldn't leave: Sartre's vision of True Hell. Van had gotten the point and been furious for days.
The characters of that play had hated each other. Hutch was just realizing that one extreme of emotion had much in common with another, and the play would have made its point even if the characters had loved as hard as they hated. Variations on a theme.
What if it gets to a point where I can't live with you or without you? What then?
The voice was soft enough to be almost inaudible, but he jumped. "What the--? Dammit, Starsky, don't sneak up on me like that!"
"Didn't wanna wake you if you were asleep."
"What sleep in this damned furnace! What do you want?"
Starsky shrugged. "Nothin'," he mumbled.
He was looking so much like a tousled kid standing unsure of his welcome at the foot of his parents' bed that Hutch's irritation evaporated. "You can't sleep either, huh?" He got a negative shake of the tangled curls. "Want to sit with me for a while?"
"You don't mind?"
"No." He started to rise, but Starsky stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.
"Stay there. I'll sit down here." He sat on the floor close to his partner, on one of the large cushions Hutch had thrown off the couch, and pulled his legs to his chest, wrapping his arms around them to rest his chin on his knees. Not too long ago he wouldn't have been able to manage the curled-up position, and Hutch felt a sense of accomplishment watching him assume it without too much difficulty.
"The first thing we're getting tomorrow is two fans," the blond said. The small store a few miles down the road had been adequate, but well-stocked ones were much further away. "You feel like going for a ride?"
"Sure, I-- Uh, no. You go. In fact, I'm fine now. Why don't you just stay in the city tomorrow? Night, too."
"Why?" Starsky's shoulders rose in a shrug. Hutch felt relieved. He definitely needed to get away for a while. His partner probably also wanted some space. "Okay. I'll either be in the car or near a phone. You can reach me if you have to."
Starsky nodded and kept silent, looking away into the moonlit night through the wide-open patio doors. Hutch hugged the pillow, put his head down, and watched his partner in profile for a long time. His reactions to this man never followed a predictable pattern. All day long he'd felt a sexual tension, had been sleepless because of it. Now Starsky was sitting damn near naked in the seductive light of the moon, a fine sheen of moisture accentuating the body mere inches from his hands, and Hutch was perfectly content and comfortable with the situation. He felt he could easily fall asleep like that, needing nothing more.
Starsky broke the silence. "Hell living with me, huh?"
It was so contradictory to what he was feeling right then that it startled Hutch. Then he remembered that a little earlier he would have agreed. Maybe the difference between heaven and hell was as elusive as the difference between love and hate. Maybe they were even interchangeable. We bit off more than we could chew when we strayed from the comfort zone into extremes, he thought. Do you feel it, too?
"If you can stand me I can stand you," he answered.
Starsky's face turned a little, revealing a crooked smile. "No problem. After eight years, you even get used to a toothache."
"Oh gee, Starsk, you have a way with words. I am so flattered." It was crazy, but the inane banter actually felt good. In an off-beat way, it even made sense. After all, people normally got bothersome teeth removed instead of keeping them for eight years. "I am flattered," he repeated. "My God, this is more serious than I realized -- you're making sense to me!"
"Knew there was hope for you yet."
Easy laughter followed, as naturally as water bubbling up from a spring and just as refreshing. Hutch reached out to ruffle the riotous curls. You can take me to hell and back -- just keep making me laugh. And laugh with me.
"Didn't mean to be a pain in the ass all day long," Starsky said, still wearing the remnant of the laughter as a smile.
"You're mixing your metaphors, or pains, or something."
"Okay, we're both pains. What do we do about it?"
"Well, I'll go away tomorrow like you want. Consider it an aspirin."
Starsky's face turned serious. "Hutch, I don't want you to go away. I just want you to take a break before you start feelin' like runnin' away."
Hutch had gotten a pony one birthday. The shaggy beast had had a tendency to kick up hell to break free of her stall, but when she was given her head she wouldn't go anywhere. Now he knew why. "I like it here fine," he said.
"Wanna know somethin' funny, Hutch? I trust you all the way, all the time -- except when you say that."
Hutch chuckled. Starsky knew him too damned well. "All right. This place closes in sometimes. But it's not only me who needs a break. We both do."
Starsky took time out to consider that. "Guess you're right." He uncurled, tucked his legs under him sideways and leaned on Hutch's pillow. "Let's play hooky tomorrow."
"And do what?"
"Dunno. I'll think about it."
Starsky put his head down on the pillow, curling one arm over his partner's head. A thick curl wrapped around one of Hutch's fingers of its own accord. He tugged on it gently. "Hey, you'll get cramps. Don't fall asleep down there."
"Won't," Starsky said, settling his head more comfortably into the pillow. "How 'bout Disneyland?" he mumbled after a while.
"Wherever," Hutch said drowsily. Later, he noticed that Starsky's weight over his arm under the pillow was too steady. "You're sleeping," he accused, barely able to fight it himself.
"'m not." The indignant reply was slurred.
Some time later Hutch managed once more. "Starsk, go to bed."
"'m goin'," came indistinctly. The last thing Hutch remembered hearing was a soft snore.
An itchy, tickling sensation woke him, and he found his face buried in his partner's hair. He forced himself to get up, pulled a sleepily protesting Starsky to his feet, steered him to the bedroom and into his bed. For a minute, he watched as Starsky had a disagreement with the pillows and bedclothes that he seemed to settle to his satisfaction, scratched the tip of his nose on the back of one hand, rubbed his eyes with the knuckles of the same hand, and went into deep sleep again, forgetting his hand on his face in mid-rub. Then Hutch went back to drop on the couch and slept peacefully until two of his senses awakened him.
The smell in his nose, signaling imminent breakfast, was pleasant and welcome. The influence on his other sense, however, could only be described as an assault.
"M-i-c-k-e-y-M-o-u-s-e," Starsky was singing.
OCTOBER 9, 1979
Hutch blinked, rubbed his eyes, then tried to focus on his watch again. The phosphoric blur finally sharpened into numbers: 2:32. He let his sleep-heavy arm fall with a groan. What now?
It hadn't been a sound that awakened him, of that he was pretty sure. He was even surer, without checking, that Starsky wasn't in his bed, or anywhere else in the cottage. The absence, like a vacuum, had pulled, rousing him. He yawned to send a fresh supply of oxygen to his groggy brain, dragged himself off the couch, stretched, and went to look out the patio door into the night. Starsky was sitting at the edge of the tide, his back to the cottage. Hutch swept his shirt off a chair and pulled it on as he descended to the sand.
"Didn't mean to wake you up," Starsky called back upon his approach, without turning.
He stopped short, knowing he had made no sound that could be heard over the surf, then shrugged to himself and continued. Maybe presence worked along the same lines as absence. "Something wrong?"
"Nope. Woke up, couldn't get back to sleep."
He sat down next to and a little behind Starsky. "What's wrong?"
"Yeah. So what's wrong?"
Starsky chuckled softly. "I don't know. Restless, I guess."
"Worried about tomorrow?" It was too soon, in Hutch's opinion, but Starsky had insisted on taking the battery of tests for re-qualification and Dobey had set up the first batch. The problem was, Hutch decided, that his partner would be taking them alongside Academy cadets. When Starsky shrugged instead of answering, the blond continued, "Nobody's going to compare you to a bunch of greenhorns. You're at a whole different level now. You're not expected to jump through hoops."
"I'm not worried about competition. Oh, I was for a while, then realized that was just a waste of time. I can only make the best of what I've got lef--what I've got."
"You'll be fine," was the only lame response Hutch managed to get past a sudden constriction.
"Sure I will," Starsky said lightly. "No, truly, Hutch that's not botherin' me. I really don't know why I'm restless."
"Being cooped up in this place?"
"No. Actually, just the-- Maybe it's...I don't know. However the qualifications go, whatever the Board decides next month, well, there'll be another change. I feel...kinda...settled here. Ridiculous, right? I wasn't made to be a beach bum. I mean, this is just...interim...whatever. I do wanna go back. You can't wait either, betcha, but still..." He stopped, took a deep breath. "I don't know. Just a jumble in my head. It makes no sense. When it does...if it does...you'll be the first to know, okay?"
Hutch read a request for silence into that and complied, prying into the quality of it with his instincts as he constantly did lately. He found it easy, peaceful, and relaxed into it.
In a few weeks, the nights were going to be too cool to sit comfortably on the beach. At the moment it was pleasant to him, a relief after the sweltering summer. But he was wearing a shirt. The only reason, he told himself, that his eyes went to Starsky's naked shoulders and back was to see if he was chilly with only his denim shorts on. The dark skin, tanned by the sun, burnished now by the moon, looked smooth. His gaze was held there. Smooth in the sense there were no chill-bumps. Otherwise...
From his vantage point, only two of the round, puckered ridges of the exit scars were visible, the other one lost beyond the curvature of the spine. Lower, angled across the small of the back, was one long, clean scalpel cut, marking the search for the fourth bullet that had gone astray inside the body, ripping jagged zig-zags and causing most of the damage. It corresponded to another on the abdomen, both mute reminders of the surgeons' frantic haste that had left no room for aesthetic considerations. On the chest, out of his sight at the moment, the bullet wounds hadn't been gaping, but now the surgery scars were numerous, bare, pale streaks glaringly criss-crossing the symmetrical pattern of hair.
The urge to touch the scarred body was there again, as if his fingers could obliterate the cruel brands. They couldn't, of course, and if he touched the way he wanted to, Starsky would misunderstand. So he touched in the permissible way. Shifting until he was on his knees behind the curved back, he started massaging. Only a soft sigh came from Starsky. Quietly, Hutch continued at the implied consent.
Past Starsky's head, the hammered-metallic shimmer of the moon frolicked on the waves. Hutch smiled to himself. In the past, whenever he'd thought of his friend, the surroundings of the image were mazes of city streets, and if he had had to come up with a comparison, his first thought would've been of a prowling, hunting alley cat. Lately, he'd become conditioned to seeing the man against a sunlit backdrop of the beach, or the quiet star-filled nights. Likening him to a barely-tame creature hadn't changed, though, especially when he was so naturally clad in his own skin and little else.
His fingertips caught on a ridge marring the well-defined musculature. Jungle-scarred, too. Would he bolt like a wild thing if Hutch leaned forward and touched with his lips? Maybe he wouldn't even feel it; nerves had been severed along the cuts, deadening them to sensation forever. Hutch shook his head and cast about for something else to concentrate on. He noticed Starsky was fiddling with something on the sand, leaned over his shoulder to see. "What's that?"
"Huh? Oh." Starsky lifted his palm. "Nothin', just sea shells. Look at this. Pretty, isn't it? What's it called?"
Starsky always asked him things like that, as if he had every obscure answer at the tip of his tongue. "I don't know what that's called, but if it was much larger, shaped like that, it'd be a conch shell."
"Oh, yeah. Used to find those, the big ones that is, at Coney Island when I was little. Didn't go much, though. My dad was too busy. Took one home once. Nicky used to turn it upside down to shake. You know how you're supposed to hear the ocean - guess he thought the ocean was in it. I remember him cryin' 'cause it wouldn't pour out. Good thing, too. Ma would've been pretty upset with an ocean on her kitchen floor. Would've made me mop it up."
"Why you if it was Nicky who dumped it?"
"He was younger. Always got away with things like that." He shrugged and added, although Hutch hadn't asked, "I didn't mind. Well, mostly." Suddenly, he jumped tracks. "How come you can hear the ocean in 'em, Hutch?"
"It's not really the ocean, you know. The curves make an echo chamber inside and it only sounds like the sea. Actually, it doesn't sound too much like it, either. It's just human nature, I guess. Poetic license. Making a fantasy out of reality."
"Where it don't fit," his partner added softly. "Just...fanciful thinkin', right?"
Starsky tossed away the shells. "Right."
With the ending of the conversation, Hutch became aware that his hands had taken to stroking rather than massaging. He pulled away, fearing Starsky might also notice, and sat back on his heels. His partner saw fit to scoot forward a little and drop his shoulders and head into the blond's lap. Oh, babe, don't.
"You look all shiny," Starsky said, looking up at him.
"The moon's right behind your head."
"Oh." The eyes stared up at him a little longer, then closed. "What're you thinking about?" he asked.
Hutch wondered if Starsky's non-sequiturs would ever stop catching him off guard. "Huh?"
"You know, mercury, like in thermometers."
"Yeah, I know. What about it?"
"I was, I don't know, six, I think. Yeah, must've been. Ma was out to here with Nicky." He held his hand over his abdomen, then let it drop straight down. Obviously, Starsky was in one of his nostalgic moods. "I was sick. The bedrooms were upstairs and Ma couldn't climb up 'n down all day, so she made me a place downstairs in front of the TV. She kept takin' my temperature every ten minutes, I swear. You see, at the time, summers in New York meant polio scare. Guess she was tired and worried. I didn't understand any of that then. It was hot, I was hotter 'n she kept stickin' this pesky thing into my mouth. I remember fussin' about it. One time when she wasn't in the room, I took it out and started playin' with it. I didn't mean to break it, but the tip just broke. The mercury spilled out."
Hutch was barely listening, his attention captured by Starsky's fingers idly running through the thick matting on his lower abdomen. Also, his legs were going numb. Heedless, his partner kept chattering. "Tiny silver beads rollin' all over the place. Shiny and smooth and so pretty. I started chasing 'em. But I never could catch any. Even when they stopped rollin' and sat there like they were saying 'come and get me,' they were shimmering like they were restless inside, and I found out they were gonna get away faster than I could grab. I tried so hard to catch one and hold on to it just for a minute, just to know what it felt like. Even if I couldn't keep it."
The cut-off jeans Starsky was wearing as shorts were old, and he'd lost a lot of weight since then. In the prone position, his pelvis hollowed out further, and the thickening descent of hair was visible between the jutting hipbones. What it felt like, Hutch's mind parroted. No...we're talking about...what the hell're we talking about?
"I couldn't catch any, but I wanted to so badly. I didn't even know what it was called then, never mind why it was called quicksilver." Both his hands made an open-palmed gesture and fell to his sides. As if released from a spell, Hutch focused on his face again.
"I also didn't know it was poisonous," Starsky continued. "Ma came in and she was furious. Wouldn't believe I didn't do it on purpose. She must've thought I broke it in my mouth, 'cause the next thing I knew, I was at the hospital, gettin' my stomach pumped out. They had this hose they kept shovin' down my throat. It hurt like hell, and nobody would believe I never even got to touch the stuff, let alone swallow any of it, and I remember wantin' to cry, but my father was there by then, and..." He trailed off.
That seemed to be the end of the story. Comprehending Starsky's stories was a challenge under the best of circumstances, and Hutch had been following this one with only a small fraction of his mind. He had to stop and think what a normal response would be to the narrative, grasped at a conciliatory tone one would use for a child. "I'm sorry they hurt you, and I'm sorry nobody believed you." Starsky looked up at him strangely. "I'm also sorry you didn't get to catch any mercury," the blond added as good measure.
"Quicksilver," Starsky corrected.
The darkly shadowed eyes reflected something like disappointment for an instant before they were shuttered. Did I miss something? Hutch wondered as he tugged lightly at the springy curls that felt moist with the humidity. "You really should get some sleep. First stop in the morning is the firing range. You need steady hands and clear sight."
"Yeah. Tell you what, you go on up. If I keep talkin', I'm never gonna get sleepy. I'll be along soon."
Hutch went back. Although he tried to wait up, he drifted off. His sleep wasn't too deep, though, until Starsky was also in the cottage. However, it was deep enough to leave him wondering if the feeling that his partner had stood looking down at him and stroking his hair was reality or just a dream.
NOVEMBER 12, 1979
Normally, Starsky would've bitched endlessly if he had to wake up during what he called 'ungodly hours.'
For the last month, though, he'd been up, and down at the beach, before the sun had a chance to climb any respectable distance into the sky. On the sundeck of the cottage, Hutch sipped his tea, watching the small figure on the beach jogging determinedly, laboring against the sand that dragged him down.
Captain Dobey was sitting next to him, overflowing the flimsy wicker chair, looking like a dark, grumpy bear roused too early from hibernation. Of course, nobody had asked him to be there; nevertheless, he was. "Well, this is it," he said in a low, rumbling voice.
Hutch just nodded, eyes still on Starsky who had come to a stop next to a boat shed and was now chinning himself on some wood supports. The blond winced at the sight as he always did, imagining the stress on the scarred-over muscles. However, there was no stopping a determined Starsky, and he had come a long way on sheer determination. Everybody, including the doctors and the therapists, agreed on that, but only two people knew the actual cost in pain, sweat and tears.
"Can he cut it?" Dobey's voice intruded again.
"That's what the Board will decide today, isn't it?" Hutch said, irritated. Starsky's nerves were stretched to snapping point waiting for the day, and it had begun affecting his partner as well. "They've got all the reports."
"I don't give a hoot about the reports. I'm asking you."
Hutch realized Dobey wasn't making idle conversation. The captain would be called before the Board for his recommendation and he seriously wanted the detective 's opinion. Still, Hutch hedged. "Why ask me? I'm not a doctor."
"No doctor will be going onto the streets with him. No Board member will be trusting his life to him. None of them will get hurt if he's too slow or too hesitant. You will. This is between us. Level with me."
Hutch turned to him angrily. "I'll always trust him to be my partner. When it comes right down to it, Captain, you don't trust your partner because he's Superman. There aren't any around. You trust your partner because you know, without any doubt, that he'll back you up with everything in his power. What he's actually got in his power, well, that's not so important. If I'm on the line, I know Starsky will be as fast and sure as it's humanly possible for him. And that's what counts." His eyes dared Dobey to find fault with his reasoning.
The captain sighed. "Ask a stupid question..." he grumbled. "Let me put it another way. If he doesn't have what it takes anymore, he's liable to end up getting hurt. And I know who'll bleed the most in that case. So, you tell me, can he still cut it out there?"
It was a harder question to answer, and one that was already haunting Hutch. It was his turn to sigh. "It took a lot out of him," he admitted miserably, then turned to look at the figure still trying to get the most out of an abused body. "Physically," he amended. "In terms of guts, determination, courage, I'd say he's got more of those than ever -- even discipline which I thought he'd never cultivate. Maybe enough to make up for whatever else is missing now." He looked back at the older man, now also watching Starsky's efforts. "He made his choice, Captain, and he's been working very hard for it. I'm on his side. Are you?"
Dobey was silent for a while. "Yeah," he said finally, then added with a rueful grin, "Some habits are hard to break." Both pairs of eyes followed Starsky's return, now at an easy jog. "You know my recommendation will only count so much. What the Board will decide is still anybody's guess. If they put him behind a desk...?"
"He'll resign," Hutch said.
"And you?" Hutch didn't bother answering. "Thought so," Dobey said. "Well, we'll wait and see." He leaned over, threatening to tip the chair, picked up his briefcase and took out some papers.
Hutch watched him make some notations. "What're those?"
"The department's workload and manpower reports. Thought I'd bring them up as long as there's a Board meeting."
Hutch smiled. "Loading the deck, Captain?"
"Well, I do have manpower problems. Can't afford to lose two detectives longer than I already have."
Hutch let him work and went back to watching his partner. Halfway to the cottage, Starsky paused to pull off his warmup suit, then plunged into the waves, surfacing a few seconds later. He was swimming as haphazardly as ever, throwing up more water than would be expected from a dozen playful dolphins.
Dobey's voice cut the silence. "You know the time Starsky was shot by those hoods gunning for Vic Monte?"
Hutch blinked at the change of subject. "Yeah?" he said. As if he could ever forget. For an instant, the expanse of sun-bleached sand and blue-gray water was obscured by the vision of a dark, rainy night, a homey restaurant smelling of rich herbs and wine, and warm blood spreading over the floor, red&white checkered cloth, his hands... Hutch shook his head, and breathed in the crisp morning air, trying to banish the memory.
Every time it happens, I keep thinking it has to be the last time, that God can't be so cruel as to hurt him again, that fate can surely find another plaything...and then--
Dobey's hand on his arm brought him back. The captain was standing next to him. "He once told me that when he got hurt that time, what he appreciated most wasn't so much how well you took care of him, but that you didn't treat him like a cripple. He said you still made him feel like you were partners working together every step of the way. I gather he liked that a lot."
Hutch wondered why Dobey was referring to that years-old incident in such a pointed way. Then he realized that as soon as Starsky had taken to the water, he had come out of his chair and was still worriedly watching the progress of the dark head bobbing among the waves. He felt a little embarrassed while he tried to justify himself. Starsky hated the water, couldn't swim well, but did it daily as exercise and to cool off after a workout. And Hutch always worried about fatigue or muscle spasms, especially since the weather had cooled. However, Dobey had a point. If Starsky went on active duty, Hutch couldn't keep hovering over him, undermining his self-confidence.
"Got you, Captain," he said and went into the cottage to fill the tub. Left to himself, Starsky would opt for the expedient shower. Hutch preferred him to relax properly in a tub. Have to stop that as well, he thought. Soon.
It dawned on him that soon he'd have to stop a lot of things he had come to take for granted while they shared a house. Whatever the Board decided, the limbo was ending. They would have a definite direction by that evening, one way or another. The period of interdependency would end, and they would each go back to their individual homes and lives, as befitted two adult men.
"You're drunk," Hutch accused.
"Yabetcha," Starsky agreed good-naturedly. He kept his stranglehold on Hutch's neck as the blond tried to steer his unsteady steps into the apartment. He was also exhibiting, Hutch had noticed, an unfortunate tendency to giggle at nothing.
"Hate to think what's happening to your liver," Hutch grumbled. Huggy had thrown one hell of a party after hearing of Starsky's reinstatement.
Starsky giggled. They were halfway into the bedroom when he dug in his heels. "Hey, where're we?"
"Don't you know your own apartment?"
"My-- " He squinted at his surroundings. "Oh, yeah. What're we doin' here?"
"You live here." Hutch gave a yank to dislodge him from his spot and pulled him to the bed.
"I like the beach," Starsky argued while Hutch seated him and got him out of his jacket.
"Yeah, well, we're working again. I'm not driving all the way out there tonight just to come back the same distance tomorrow."
"But we'll go back, right?"
Hutch pulled off the sneakers and socks. "It's yours until the end of the month. Maybe weekends."
Starsky found that worthy of another giggle. Hutch unbuttoned the shirt, but Starsky had thrown his arms around the blond's neck once more, so he couldn't remove it. Giving up, he just tipped Starsky into the bed. The arms tightened and pulled him down as well. Starsky's lips found an earlobe, making Hutch jerk back.
"Let me go, Starsky. I want to go home."
"Whatshwroonng...what's wrong wi' mine?"
"I'm sick of couches. I want my bed."
"Got a bed. Right here," Starsky said, trying to pull Hutch's head closer.
And you just happen to be in it, Hutch thought. This time there's even the classic excuse: I was drunk, I didn't know what I was doing. How trite are we going to get? "No, Starsky, let me go," he said firmly.
The reason Hutch lost his temper, he knew, was because everything in him was begging to give in to the tugging of those arms. "I said no!" Not again, he thought. If it ever happens again, I don't want reasons like fear, relief, guilt, anger, or anything else to hide behind, excuses to bury it. I can't take anymore. If it is to happen, it will be because we choose and want, for no reason except that we choose and want. I want to be acknowledged, goddammit, not hidden away like some dirty little secret.
He roughly thrust away the arms and straightened up. Starsky stayed still for an instant, looking sobered, then rolled over on his side and curled into a ball, hiding his face under an arm.
Hutch picked up the jacket and threw it on a chair, set the alarm clock for him, and turned the bedside lamp off. He was almost out of the room when Starsky called, "Hutch?" in a small voice.
He paused. "Yeah?"
Starsky took a shaky, audible breath. "Okay. I will ."
"I mean, it's all right." He turned to leave again.
"Pick...pick me up...for work?"
Starsky sounded so unsure about his answer that Hutch couldn't help returning to the bed. He put a hand lightly on his partner's shoulder. "Of course I'm going to pick you up for work, dummy. I set your alarm clock. Try to be ready on time for a change, hangover or no hangover."
"'Kay. 'Night, Hutch."
"Goodnight," Hutch said, squeezed the shoulder once, and left.
JANUARY 6, 1980
Hutch eyed his beer still untouched and flat by now, and decided he didn't want it. In fact, he didn't want anything the night had offered so far. He'd already realized getting back into the swing of things wasn't going to be easy; he only hoped it would he possible eventually. They were on light duty at work, which was all right with him, but it meant too few challenges to lose himself in. Maybe he was getting old, but their usual after-duty activities no longer appealed very much, either. The Pits was filled with smoke and raucous noise, one burning his eyes, the other getting on his nerves. Neither was he thrilled with his new companion. She was certainly pretty, and he had been trying to pick her up, but that was just habit and perhaps doing what was expected of him, going through the motions. In half an hour her attitude had started setting his teeth on edge, although it was no fault of hers. The few times he'd let himself get carried away by his glands had only served to empty those glands briefly, filling nothing else inside him. He wasn't up to it tonight. It was time to make an exit.
"Hey, Starsk," he spoke over the noise level. His partner was also alone at the moment; the two women they'd approached had gone to the bathroom together. "I'm cutting out. Make my apologies. Be nice; she's an okay kid. Say I was called to work or something." He attempted to get up, but Starsky reached across the table to hold his wrist.
"No, I just -- " Hutch shrugged. "Just don't feel like it."
"Oh." Starsky didn't release his arm. "Come to think of it, neither do I. Let's tell Huggy to apologize for both of us."
It surprised Hutch. He'd thought Starsky had been enjoying himself, considering that for the last ten minutes it had been hard to distinguish which body belonged to whom on the other side of the booth. "Thought you were having a ball. What's the matter?"
Starsky looked around the noisy bar. "Tell you later." He got up. "Wonder if the burgers are ready, though?" he said, steering his partner ahead of him through the crowd. "I am hungry."
"If not," Hutch called back, "we'll stop by Toni's and pick up the pizza monstrosity of your choice."
"Terrific. Got beer in the fridge. Let's get outta here."
Starsky had sprawled on the couch with his head back, his feet propped up on the coffee table, on which remained only a large, greasy cardboard box and some empty cans. He had his hands crossed on a stomach that, in Hutch's opinion, was protruding a little more than usual right now. And no wonder. "I don't believe you ate all that."
"Was good, too," Starsky said with all the smug satisfaction of a replete man. "Had a good idea there, partner. Gettin' us outta Huggy's, I mean."
Hutch chuckled. "Buddy, you know you're getting old when you opt for pizza instead of the hot armful you had there."
"And what was wrong with your 'okay kid'?" Starsky came back.
"Not a thing, except she was just that, a kid."
"Come on, she wasn't that young."
"Maybe not in years. I think it'd have been fine if you hadn't piped up we were cops."
"So now it's my fault? They asked. I was supposed to lie?"
Hutch pushed the clutter on the table to one side so he could also stretch his legs. "You know how it goes sometimes, Starsk. You get a wide-eyed innocent with hero worship in her heart and not the first notion how dirty this 'glamorous' job gets." He remembered that there had been a time when he'd have enjoyed such attitudes, would've even capitalized on them. An earlier time when he'd have thought it no more than his due. And an even earlier one when he had the attitude himself. Basic beliefs had survived the years, but no illusions were left. Not even a decade and as old as Methuselah. "I can't deal with that anymore. How do you explain that this Champion of Law and Order is just tired, and sick to his stomach from the stink most of the time?"
Starsky's hand came to rest on his thigh, squeezed gently. A gesture of understanding. "There's worse. Sometimes you get the morbid ones. You know, fascinated by all the gory details. She felt my scars, and I swear that's what turned her on. Try explainin' they aren't medals to the one living inside the skin. They pull. They catch. They hurt."
Hutch felt his throat tighten. He put his arm on the back of the couch, reached and got his fingers into the curly hair. "I know," he whispered. "I know."
Starsky turned his head sideways to him. Hutch saw that his eyes were very full. "You ever get the feelin', Hutch, that you ain't in step with the rest of the world anymore? So much's happened that now you're marchin' to a different drummer, and nobody can hear the same beat?"
"I know," Hutch repeated.
Starsky continued as if he hadn't heard, and the words were rushing out like a dam giving way. "Nobody knows what's goin' on inside you? They can't understand even if you told 'em, and you know you've even stopped looking for someone to tell, 'cause what's the use anyway, 'cause there's no way for anyone to understand, not unless they were there, lived it all with you all along, and then you know -- except for -- you think -- but then that's impossible, too -- and then you realize--" He gave up and fell silent, then removed his hand from Hutch's thigh and looked away.
"Then you realize what?" Hutch prompted softly, sensing the answer was important, but cautious about dwelling on what it could be, afraid of reading too much into it.
"Nothin'. Never mind."
"Tell me," Hutch insisted, his fingers unconsciously tightening and loosening on the dark head.
"Then you realize you'd rather opt for pizza," Starsky finished, sounding his usual irreverent self, and brought it all to a full, closed circle. "Was good, too." Abruptly, he swung his legs off the table and rose. "Except it don't clear itself away."
He piled the cans on top of the box to carry them into the kitchen. To close the distance, Hutch picked up a forgotten can from the side of the couch, found all the discarded paper napkins, and followed him. He leaned back against the counter and waited when his partner decided to water his plants, all thoughts suspended.
He watched Starsky until the chore was finished, thinking of absolutely nothing, and then, in a totally unconsidered move, relying only on his instincts, simply reached out and pulled the man into his arms. Once he had him there, a little tense but not objecting, it seemed like the next simple thing to do was to kiss him. So he did, softly at first, and when he felt Starsky fit against him naturally, a little harder. From the mouth, his lips followed the cheekbone to the temple, then traced the hairline down, his arms and hands molding his partner into himself.
"Hutch, why?" was whispered close to his ear.
He didn't answer for a few seconds, too preoccupied with parting the curls to reach the skin underneath. "Because," he answered finally, distracted.
The question was repeated, louder this time. "Why?"
"Told you." He found the upper portion of the ear, ran his tongue over the stiff curves.
Starsky shivered a little in his arms. "That ain't no reason."
"What's that mean?"
"Figure it out." He got down to the earlobe, interested in the differences of texture.
"Quit playin' with words, Hutch. Tell me."
Irritated at the way he had to keep using his mouth to answer Starsky when he had better things to do with it, he pulled back until he could see his partner's face. "There's got to be a reason?" Starsky didn't answer, just kept looking at him. He wasn't backing away, either. Neither rejection nor acceptance, and Hutch realized neutrality was worse than both. "Yes, for you there has to be, I guess. Try this on for size: because there's no reason. How do you like that?"
"Hutch, that -- that's not--"
"Not good enough? Sorry, it's the only one I've got." You've used up all the rest, he thought. "Take it or leave it."
Starsky looked down, swallowed hard a couple of times, then raised his eyes again. "I can't.
Hutch stared at him for an instant, then he made his hands let go of Starsky with slow, deliberate motions, pulled his arms away from around the man, leaving them suspended in the air, palms spread open in a gesture of surrender, and took a step back. "Fine," he said, a cold finality in his voice. He put his arms down and began to walk away.
Starsky held his sleeve. "Hutch, let me expla--"
Hutch yanked his arm away; his temper snapped. "Explain what! That it's fine when you make the moves, but not so hot when I come on to you? Or that you can't get off on me unless you're scared to death or angry? Did it occur to you, buddy, that you might have something in common with that woman you left at the bar?"
He saw the words hit Starsky as blows, and it felt like a balm to something raw and bleeding inside himself. He turned on his heels to leave, sweeping his jacket off the couch and heading for the door. Half-way through it, he glanced back. Starsky was still in the same spot, now leaning into the support of his hands on the counter, his head down, his shoulders heaving as if he hurt inside.
Hutch hesitated, took a step back into the apartment, closed the door again, and leaned his forehead against it for a minute to get a hold of his anger and see past it. He collected himself and went back to his partner -- because Starsky was that, first and last, no matter what.
He managed to sound calm. "Listen to me. I didn't mean that the way it sounded. I lost my temper, that's all. If you can't, you can't. I can handle that. It's all right. It doesn't change anything else. But you have to do something for me. Don't ever, whatever's going down, ever cross that line again. I can't take anymore. You hear me?"
The bowed head moved in a nod. "I'm sorry," Starsky whispered, his voice shaky.
Hutch found himself unable to see Starsky miserable and stay unresponsive. He put his hand lightly on one shoulder. "No need for that. I'm not." As soon as he said it, he knew it was the truth. He chose his next words very carefully. "I don't regret any form our friendship took, and I'd like to keep it that way, so this form has got to stop. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
Starsky took a deep breath and nodded again. "Yeah."
"Good. Now, who's driving tomorrow?"
"Fine. Pick me up." He patted his friend's shoulder and left. And let's see if I can pick up the pieces.
FEBRUARY 8, 1980
The warehouse was a washout for all purposes.
What else is new, Hutch thought, why should this be any different than anything else lately? He kicked an empty crate. "There's nothing here, Starsky."
His partner wiped his dusty hands on his jeans. "Guess it was a bum tip."
"You sure there was one?" Hutch snapped unkindly. He was sick of being dragged out to follow this and that lead during his supposedly free time, especially when most of them didn't pan out.
"What're you talkin' about? The call's recorded. How would I get a warrant from Judge Carney after hours without a good tip?"
"Wasn't so good after all, was it?"
"That ain't my problem." Starsky ran after the blond who was striding out of the warehouse. "What's the matter?"
"Look I don't know what your problem is. I don't know why I'm getting dragged out time after time on stakeouts that fizzle out, to see snitches who don't show up, or on tips that could've been handled by uniforms, but this is the last time you're blowing my Friday night." It had been dismal enough in the first place. A month now -- glutted and still starving.
"I thought that was it," Starsky snapped back. "Fine, go back to your whatever-her-name-is-this-time, and I won't bother you the rest of the weekend."
"Thank you! And her name is Linda. Use it."
"Why? By the time I do, another one'll be there. Let's hope the next one will be more than a step up from a --"
Hutch whirled on him. "You want to keep your teeth, you'd better not finish that sentence!"
Starsky backed down, looking genuinely embarrassed. "Okay, that was way outta line," he mumbled. "I just meant she's not your type. None of 'em are lately. Damn it, Hutch, why?"
Tell me about types, buddy, Hutch thought. And then tell me where a curly-headed man fits in. "Why? You have the nerve to ask me why?" He stared at his partner, then something seemed to snap inside. "Since you asked--" He grabbed the man by the front of his leather jacket, yanked him around, forcibly seated him on a crate and stayed over him.
"You want to know, here goes. No, I don't like one-night-stands. But they keep me sane. If I can't have what I want, I'll take what I can get. Sure, I can get better, but do you think there's anything left in me to invest in a relationship? Those women you don't think too highly of, they don't complicate my life, they don't confuse me, they don't tie my guts into knots -- which is a hell of a lot more than I can say for you. What the hell do you want from me anyway? You're on eggshells around me all day long and at the end of it I can't get rid of you. At least with those women it's simple and honest. We all know exactly what we want. I don't hurt them and they don't hurt me. Tell you something else, I like them, too -- quite a bit and just enough. So the next time you think you've got some say-so in my choices, remember, the only thing that concerns you is that I'm leaving you alone, and you can damn well return the favor!"
He let go of Starsky abruptly, spun around, and stalked to his car without a glance back. His partner didn't follow immediately. Hutch sat in the car and waited, looking at the deserted, dirty street, seeing none of it.
All the king's horses and all the king's men... I don't think they've got a chance.
Starsky was there, reaching for the door handle, when Hutch slapped his palm on the lock, barring him. He rolled the window down just enough to be heard. "I'm leaving," he informed the man outside in a toneless voice.
"Oh...okay. I...I'll get a cab."
"No, I mean I'm leaving."
"Where're you going?"
There was something like panic in Starsky's voice but Hutch didn't turn around to look at him. "I don't know."
"When're you coming back?"
"I don't know."
"You are coming back?"
He shrugged again, listlessly.
"Hutch, please, let's talk about it."
He shook his head.
"What -- what do I tell Dobey?"
Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn, was the first thing that popped into his head. He kept it to himself, shook his head at the inanity of it, and found himself laughing at the same time. He was still laughing when he drove away.
When it hurt too much to cry... Or was it the other way around?
One of the first things he noticed two hours out of LA was that he had forgotten his wallet. He wasn't going back for it, so he stopped at the next town, found the police station, flashed his badge and said he was stranded. With professional courtesy, they gave him some money. He signed the voucher and addressed it to Metro. He couldn't keep doing that, or soon he'd find Starsky or Dobey waiting for him somewhere, but for the moment it was enough. He'd use it only for gas and food, find a place on the beach to sleep when he got tired, and worry about the rest when he had to.
FEBRUARY 9, 1980
The first day's tally was a heady feeling of freedom, too little sleep, many miles left behind under the impulse to push on, and a slowly emerging question: Where am I going?
FEBRUARY 10, 1980
Next day, he couldn't drive much; gas ate up money. So did the diners which evidently believed prices should be in direct opposition to the quality. He let the car sit a lot, wandering aimlessly through the little towns he happened upon. Towards nightfall, he seemed to have reached one conclusion: I have no place to go.
But going back simply because there was no other refuge would be galling. He went a little further up the coast, then stopped to sleep.
FEBRUARY 11, 1980
By the time the sun came up, he'd decided he was being ridiculous. Of course he had places to go, alternatives to choose from. Just what they were, let alone how appealing they were, well, he'd settle that later. So he jumped back into the car and drove on.
Maybe he could call Duluth that evening and ask for some money to be wired. His parents would be ecstatic over the news he'd left LA and 'that miserable job,' and wouldn't ask questions. By the time they figured out he wasn't heading home, he'd be... wherever. He'd smooth the ruffled feathers one day. Anyway, they never expected better of him, so what difference did it make?
He went so far as to pick up a phone and talk to the operator about reversing the charges -- then he simply hung up. A grown man had to govern his own life, and one of the cardinal rules was not to let somebody else pay his way through it. Another, he thought, is to face it.
He got some coffee and toast, left the truck stop, and found another nameless beach for the night. It was getting colder the further north he went, definitely too chilly to think of sleeping by the sea, and the car got cramped too quickly. He found a blanket in the trunk, sat down on a boulder, and as the first order of business, admitted to himself that he had no place to go because he wanted no place else to go.
I am what I want to be, in my chosen corner of the world. My life is back there. That's settled.
Nothing else about his life was settled, though.
A month ago he had told Starsky he could handle it, and then proceeded to prove he could do nothing of the sort. What was he trying to prove with a string of one-night-stands? After all, for four years he hadn't needed to exhaust his body to keep his hands off his partner.
So what had he been doing? The most honest answer was that he'd been having a temper tantrum, like a child refused something he wanted. That realization was embarrassing, but not completely new. Most of his life he'd been comfortable with his actions; it was his reactions he had problems with. He lost control when his life got tangled up with somebody else's. Too bad a man can't be an island. It'd be so much easier.
Why couldn't a man be an island? Certainly, conditioned to symbiosis, it was hard to imagine, probably even harder to achieve, but if amputation was what it'd take--
What the hell are you thinking of in such clinical terms? It's not a sickness, dammit, and if you insist, try split personality, because that's how woven the relationship is. How do you amputate that? Exorcism? Oh, that'll be interesting. You see, Padre, this is my partner, and, uh, well, we have a problem.
Maybe sitting alone on a dark, empty beach and laughing at yourself would not be considered an approved therapeutic practice, but there was a lot to be said for it, he found out. Somehow, it cleared the cobwebs away. He pulled himself up straight, and for the first time, both mentally and vocally, he put it into words:
"David Michael Starsky, I love you."
He chuckled. No heralds and trumpets, please; it's not a revelation. Neither does it obligate Starsky. However, it's a fact. And as with all facts, you have to live with it. Now that you've said it, put it away, and don't parade it anymore. Won't be too hard. Only a tiny portion of it has to be buried; the rest is reciprocated. Go home. Find your partner. Friend. Period.
He headed back to his car. If he drove without stopping, he should be home sometime the following night, and he should have just about enough money left to do it.