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Part Five

White Feather


Katherine Robertson

Part Six

There were three other people in the waiting room with Starsky. They all wore that mask of fatigue that comes with long, sleepless hours of worry. Two were older women, the other a man whose countenance spoke of many intimate nights with a bottle of booze. Right now, eyes bleary, his hands trembled so much he kept spilling the coffee out of its plastic cup. Nobody commented, or even cared.

Starsky sat closest to the doors bearing the designation Critical Care Unit in bright green paint. Every time they were breached he looked up expectantly, his expression changing when he saw it wasn't Hutch's doctor. Resigned, he went back to his task; the endless circling of ads for homes. Page after page bore red circles, some underlined to show they were to be viewed first. There was an air of quiet deliberation in his actions, as if Hutch's very life depended on his finding the perfect place, the home they both wanted.

A loud groan, a cry quickly muffled, brought him to his feet and up to the barricading doors. Jesus, what were they doing in there? He wanted to yank his gun out of the holster and storm his way into that no-man's land of pain and death. So many times, so many friends, why did they continue to do the job? He peered through the glass portholes, his breath steaming up the lower portion. You've got the hottest mouth, Dave. I love your kisses. He jerked away. Mustn't do this to himself; it was what he always scolded Hutch for doing.


He blinked with relief. Dobey stood in the doorway, Edith close behind. "Yeah," he said huskily, picking up the papers so she could sit down. "He's still in there, so I guess they think he's got a chance."

Without speaking, Edith opened her arms, and Starsky went to her, accepting her warmth and sympathy with bowed head. She let him go after a minute, her eyes reflecting his own pain. "He'll make it, Dave. God won't take him yet. His work's not done here."

Her faith always moved him. Just an hour ago he had hurled angry challenges to heaven, demanding answers to questions that were tearing at his heart. Wondering if they were being punished for loving one another. In the end, though, as always, he had invoked the whole pantheon of gods, silently pleading for Hutch's life.

"I love him," he told her softly. "We're gonna look for a place to live—when he gets out of here."

He saw Dobey's expression and went to stand by him. "We've made up our minds, and I'm goin' to see to it Hutch 'n me get a chance to live like everybody else." He sighed. "Dunno what the department's goin' to say, but that's what's going down as soon as he's well enough to get in my car."

A hand rested on his shoulder; it had been there many times before. "If that's what you both want, then that's what is right for you." Dobey smiled. "In fact, there's a place near us..."

Helena woke suddenly, clutching the white afghan close around her. It was getting dark, and she sensed she was alone in the house. Where was Harry? And Nikki? With great effort she got to her feet, walking awkwardly over to turn on the lamp and the front porch light. She must have slept wrong because her back ached. Rubbing it didn't seem to help much, either. She made a face, then went into the kitchen to prepare dinner. Nothing fancy tonight, not the way she felt. Her brothers' concern made her smile a little; men were such babies.

By seven she was really worried, so she called Ventura, asking Rita if she could speak to Miklos. Miklos wasn't there, Rita informed her coolly, but at least she asked how she felt.

"All right, I guess, but Harry hasn't shown up yet, and I'm sort of afraid to be alone."

"All I can tell you, Helena, is that he drove to L.A. this morning. Sorry."

They hung up, and on an impulse Helena called Alex's, praying the line wouldn't be busy. His wife answered, repeating Rita's words almost verbatim. After saying good-bye, she poured herself a cup of black coffee, wandering into the living room to watch the news. When they updated the story about John Templeton, she frowned, remembering him as one of the men her Lud had talked to...and now he was gone. Perhaps justice was on her side.

Justice! With a sudden thrill she knew where her brothers were...and what they must be doing. Joy made her giddy and she surged to her feet, laughing and whirling around. When she was breathless, she sank onto the sofa, fanning herself. The baby kicked out, and she pressed against the spot where she could outline a foot with her hand. "Have patience, little one, and everything will be fine," she admonished, massaging the taut flesh lazily. She couldn't wait for them to come piling in, hungry and exuberant. Oh, what a feast she would make. She rose, smiling, ready to spend the next few hours preparing a real dinner—a celebration for Lud.

By the time dinner was in the oven, her back hurt even more. She perched on the kitchen stool, some of her excitement fading. It was nine-thirty and she hadn't had so much as a phone call. How long did it take for five men to beat up one? And a cowardly one, at that. A thought occurred to her; what if Hutchinson had set a trap for her brothers? What if he had guessed who sent the feathers, and he and the others cops had arrested them?

Fear replaced her elation but she was grimly determined to hope for the best. She had to have faith in her family.

At ten p.m. the phone rang. It was Stavros. In quick, terse sentences he told her about Alex and Nikki. No one had seen Harry. He was at the hospital, he said, and the cops were sure to come after them. As she listened in stunned silence, a new sensation insinuated itself into her consciousness. The backache had spread around to her belly, each tug hard enough to make her catch her breath.

"Stavvy!" she managed to gasp, "The baby—"

There was the sound of a scuffle and the phone went dead.

"No!" she screamed. "Stavvy! Oh, God!" She sank to her knees and began to weep.

Harold Dobey felt old as he plodded back to the waiting room where Edith and Starsky were. His call to Hutch's father had been received with a choked intake of air, then a fervent query about his son's prognosis. He'd met Hutch's family not long after the young and eager detective had joined Metro. Tall, striking, they'd seemed a trifle bewildered by Hutch's enthusiasm for law enforcement. Their pride in him, however, had never been in question; neither had their faith in his integrity and resolve. He wondered what they thought about their son and his partner...Hutch had never said.

As he rounded the corner of the corridor, he saw Edith sitting alone, straight-backed, her eyes bright with unshed tears, and he hurried to her. She wore that particular grimace which meant she was the bearer of bad news. He didn't think he was strong enough to hear it. "Where's Dave?" he managed finally.

She gripped his hand with cold fingers, clinging to him. "He's in with Hutch, dear." She bit her lip, then allowed him to draw her close.

"Is-is he...?" He looked over at the two old women, who shook their heads in unison, averting their eyes. "Edith? Tell me what's happened."

She pulled out of his arms. "Hutch sc-screamed, and it was more than Dave could take. He dashed in there and hasn't come back." The tears spilled down her cheeks. "Dave said he's been beaten to within an inch of his could anyone do something like that?"

How many times had he asked that very question? How many times had the answer been the same? I don't know. "Hutch will take that inch, Edith, and fight back. He's no quitter. His folks will be here tomorrow morning." He wondered a trifle acidly if they would charter a plane...and was ashamed of himself. He would, if it were Cal lying behind those doors and he had the money.

"I called the station. They've caught the men responsible," he said, trying to cheer her up. He smiled ruefully at the fierce pleasure his words gave her. "It seems that Hutch did a lot of damage before he went down. Two of them are in a pretty bad way." He couldn't keep the note of satisfaction out of his voice.

"Two—how many were there?" Edith was shocked.

But his reply was delayed by the arrival of three men from Metro. He hugged his wife, accepted her kiss, and strode down the hall to return to work. She would wait; after all, these were her boys, too.

There was a light shining somewhere in front of him...or was it above him? Beyond it was a vast, dark body of water. Every now and then, if he moved so much as an eyelash, the water came closer, bringing with it unbearable pain. Once, he'd moved, and like a riptide, it had tried to pull him under, awash in agony. He'd screamed, and called for Starsky—or had he? Maybe the whole damn scene was only a dream. Maybe this was the nightmare he'd been so certain he'd have...and when he woke up he'd be safe in Starsky's arms, sheltered, secure, and in bed. All of a sudden, the glaring light disappeared, and he almost yelled out in relief. But since that might bring back the torment, he remained absolutely still, barely breathing.

Someone called him. He wanted to answer, should answer, but was afraid...for the water was now lapping at his fingertips. He listened, unmoving, swaddled in the darkness, aware of little save the fire within, the chill without. When was Starsky going to wake him?

He was tired—his strength was ebbing with each new assault of pain. Starsky? Where are you? I need help!

He thought he heard someone whispering to him—telling him how to escape. All he had to do, the voice said, was slip into the water, and after a few minutes there would be everlasting relief.

Would it hurt, he heard himself ask—yet he wasn't speaking.

There was silence, then the voice admitted that pain was the price of his release. He wasn't certain he could pay that high a price. He'd had a lot of grief in his life...must he accept more? He wondered if this offer was in place of the hellfire he and Starsky always talked about. He whimpered his fear as the inexorable sea inched closer.

Don't struggle. Come into my arms...sleep with me...

The pain receded, replaced by cool fingers stroking his brow. Starsky, of course! Murmuring words of comfort, lifting away his misery. He no longer felt much; his heart still beat, his mind still functioned. But why wasn't Starsky talking to him in words he could understand? Didn't he know? Surely somebody had told Starsky his partner was going away.

Shhh. It doesn't matter. Come with me and we'll find peace.

The cold fingers lightly touched his throat, moved down across his chest, lingered near his heart. He was acutely aware of his nakedness and tried to pull away. No! This was wrong—these were a stranger's hands touching him, not his lover's. Starsky's hands brought warmth, fire, surging need; these were offering only numbing...oblivion. Help me! he called silently, not moving. Starsky! Where are you?

He recognized the darkness for what it was—if he did nothing, he would die—if he moved, ah, God, if he moved, the pain would give him life. He was so tired...and terribly afraid.

"HUTCH!" more pain. All he had to do was stop...everything.

"Don't! Hutch—don't—" A cry torn from deep within a bereft soul. A cry bringing him more agony...and Starsky.

He opened one eye. There, accepting part of his burden, offering him life, was the man he loved above all others.

"Atta boy, Hutch. You can do it. C'mon, babe, breathe for me. C'mon."

Hutch's fingers clenched Starsky's in a death grip. He focused on his lover's face and took one deep, shuddering breath. Then another.

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"See? You can do it, babe. C'mon."

He heard the words, felt Starsky's presence, but was too tired to face the torment again. Sleep. Yes. That was what he wanted.

Slowly he slipped back into the darkness.

Starsky sat slumped in the chair beside Hutch's bed, groggy from lack of sleep and worry. He'd lost track of time, remembered only the departure of Edith, the arrival of Hutch's parents, their need for reassurances he could barely spare, and endless cups of awful coffee. It was still morning; he knew that much because the day nurse had been trying to bathe Hutch when the doctor came in and began examining him. Hutch had been given one of the few single cubicles—for reasons of security—and for that, at least, Starsky was grateful.

We only had a few seconds, Hutch' n me, before he lost consciousness again, Starsky thought dully as he watched the physician fiddle with something taped to Hutch's shoulder. He heard the nurse whispering about the color of Hutch's lips, and he stared at them, wondering how she could tell anything was wrong when most of the skin was split and swollen and almost purple. The doctor nodded, then lifted Hutch's left forearm in its white cast, and examined his nails, eliciting a deep groan from his unconscious partner.

"You're hurtin' him," he said curtly, meeting the puzzled gaze without moving. "That's where they busted his arm—twice."

The doctor shot a quick glance at the nurse, but didn't place Hutch's arm back on the bed. "I'm Doctor Mathews, and I am your partner's orthopedist. I know all about this arm. I set it."

Before he could say more Starsky pushed his chair back and got to his feet, edging closer. "Then you know you're hurtin' him, don't you? Do you have to? Look at his face."

Mathews continued his examination before replying. "I'm checking his fingernails to make certain the cast isn't on too tight. Poor circulation will cause the tissues to swell, and that is not only very painful it can cause all sorts of problems." He spoke slowly, as if to someone who needed to absorb every word. "Besides, the pain reminds him he's alive, and that, regrettably, is something his body is trying to forget."

"What the hell are you talkin' about?" Starsky demanded hotly. "Hutch never gave up in his whole life! He's no quitter!" He glared at the shorter man, noticing suddenly that Mathews had a very vivid scar across his throat. His cop's mind wanted to know all the details of that little souvenir.

"I certainly agree with you, Sergeant Starsky, or your friend wouldn't be here." He gently settled Hutch's arm back on top of the covers. This time Hutch didn't move. "Why don't you step outside with me? I don't like to talk in front of patients. You'd be amazed what they remember after they regain consciousness."

Meeting the nurse's gaze, and receiving a warm smile in return, Starsky left his place by the bed and followed the doctor out into the corridor. Sunlight streamed along the length of the highly waxed floor and he had to turn his back on the glare, leaning against the wall and crossing his arms. "So? What's the scoop? You ain't gonna tell me Hutch has got a death wish, are you?" He didn't try to keep the hostility from his tone.

Mathews smiled, shaking his head. "My God, man, he's got more inner strength that I imagined possible, but that doesn't stop him—or anyone else—from becoming unbelievably exhausted from the constant pain and the terrible battering he suffered."

Starsky bowed his head, then raised it, staring hard at the other man. "And you can't give him the kind of pain killers that he needs because of his—record?"

The physician grimaced. "Are you blaming yourself for telling us about that? Well, don't." He shoved his hands deep into the pockets of his lab coat. "If it will make you feel any better, Sergeant, that isn't why we've had to go light on his medications." One hand escaped its pocket and came up to rub the shiny forehead. He seemed to be searching for the right words.

Fear of a different sort raced through Starsky, leaving him shaking. There was something in the doctor's eyes—magnified through his glasses—that spoke of far more knowledge and far more serious consequences. "You tryin' to tell me he's not gonna make it?" he whispered, already shaking his head in denial.

Mathews' expression was grave. "No, I'm not. His chances for survival are better than average, if—" he looked away, glasses picking up the reflected glare from the floor.

Starsky clamped his fingers hard on the man's arm, fury raging through him, burning away the earlier fear. "If what? Don't jerk me around, Doc, 'cause we're talkin' serious business, here. My partner 'n me—"

"Yes. I know. And I do apologize for the seeming dramatics. We physicians sometimes forget how we must sound when we don't want to, ah, pry."

"Ask whatever you have to. I'll give it to you straight—if I can." He removed his fingers and braced himself, wondering how personal the questions were going to get.

"Our first concern was to get his vital signs stabilized, and then set his arm," Mathews said quietly, his expression giving nothing away. "But while he was being examined in the emergency room, one of the residents felt that your partner's liver was...well..." he shrugged. "Has he ever had hepatitis?"

So, that was what they suspected. While he wanted to shake the man for leaping to conclusions—just because they were lovers, he was relieved. "No," he replied evenly, "but a few years ago...'77, I think, there was that plague scare. Only a few people got it, and Hutch was one of the lucky ones who survived." In a few terse sentences he described those days when Hutch had lingered near death, and of the race to find Calender. He grew chilled at the memory. "The doctor said he might have further complications later on, but..." He shook his head. "He's never said anything about feeling sick."

"That explains quite a bit, thanks," Mathews said, taking off his glasses to clean them on his coat. "You've been very helpful, Sergeant Starsky." He settled the glasses back in place, smiling almost shyly. "Your partner has tremendous stamina. I'm sure we can pull him through."

But the reassurance wasn't enough. Starsky needed more. "Then what did you mean about his body forgettin' he was alive?"

The doctor glanced at his watch. "He's tired, and no doubt frightened, and well, he's suffered a terrible psychological battering. The kind that can effect an individual at a subconscious level—where we can't reach him. In other words, sergeant, his mind may be telling his body to give up the good fight—to let go because he's dying." Mathews stared hard at Starsky. "Maybe you can convince him he's not going to die."

Starsky felt the blood leave his face. "You're wrong," he murmured. "Hutch wants to live...he's gotta live."

Quickly, Mathews patted him on the shoulder. "Let's go back into the room, and I'll try to show you what I mean."

They filed back, Starsky noting absently that the nurse had tried to clean some more of the bloody crusts off Hutch's face, and combed his hair. His covers were all straightened, and the clutter on his bedside table had some sort of order now. But outside of the regular, very shallow breathing, Hutch lay absolutely still.

Mathews said something to the nurse that Starsky couldn't hear, and she hurried out of the room, closing the door behind her. "Now, Sergeant, will you step over here, beside me?"

Starsky did so, taking in his lover's weary, swollen features. "Is he warm enough?" he asked suddenly as he wrapped his fingers around Hutch's.

"For now. Just remain quiet, then do what I tell you." Mathews leaned over, his patient, bring his face close to Hutch's. "Hutch...Detective Hutchinson...are you awake?"

Not so much as an eyelash fluttered, yet Starsky could have sworn Hutch had heard—had to have heard the man. "Why doesn't he move? Or do something?" he asked.

"You ask the same question, Sergeant," came the abrupt rejoinder as the doctor moved to let Starsky in.

He bent over, hand drifting to Hutch's head. "'s me, Starsk. Are you awake?" He kept his voice low, coaxing, his mouth close to Hutch's ear. He turned his head to watch for further directions from Mathews. There was a strange expression on the doctor's face.

"Look," said Mathews, pointing. "By George, I knew he'd respond if you talked to him."

Starsky pulled back, staring intently at Hutch. Very slowly, and with a terrible effort, Hutch's eyes began moving behind their bruised lids. After what seemed an interminable time, he sighed, obviously trying to say something.

Hastily, Starsky placed one finger across the swollen mouth. "Don't try to talk, I know you heard me. Just go back to sleep. I'll be here."

It wasn't a smile by a long shot, but a look of indefinable contentment smoothed out the drawn expression. Starsky looked at Mathews in triumph. "He did hear me, ya know."

This time Mathews smiled. "That's what I was hoping would happen, Sergeant. He's aware of you, and wants to let you know he can hear you."

"Yeah. But I can't be here all the time. I'm a cop. I can't stay off the job..." His voice trailed away, keeping his unvoiced fears to himself. "What you're sayin' is that if I'm not here, he's not gonna want to keep on trying?"

The smile vanished, replaced by a guarded look. "No. No. But if you could manage to be here when some of the more, ah, painful procedures have to be would be a great help." The doctor didn't elaborate.

"Sure—sure. But right now I gotta spend some time with Hutch's parents. They're damn near sick with worry 'cause he was unconscious when they got here." He'd only spent a few minutes with them, explaining briefly to Hutch's dad about Helena Anders and her family. The senior Hutchinson had listened, shook his head, then asked how the young mother and her baby were doing. The question had been so compassionate Starsky had been rendered like Hutch.

"Uh, Doc, there's something we need to talk about before I go. Hutch 'n I, we, uh, haven't told his folks" Warmth flooded Starsky's cheeks as he spoke but he didn't drop his gaze. "Maybe they'll wonder about you wantin' me to be here for the rough parts, you know?"

A look of understanding crossed Mathews' face, and the man nodded in sympathy. "Don't worry. As his immediate family they are allowed to visit when they want. As his partner, you need special permission. Just leave things to me." he shrugged, then smiled. "When he's out of ICU, it's up to the floor nurses to handle visitors."

The physician took out his stethoscope, warmed it in his hands, then pulled Hutch's covers back. His expression as he moved the instrument around was very closed as he listened intently. His hands were well-shaped and clean, his movements smooth and gentle. When he finished, he once again felt the fingers on Hutch's left hand. Looking up, he nodded at Starsky.

Starsky realized suddenly that he was hungry. "Will he be okay if I go get a cup of coffee and something to eat?"

Mathews pulled the covers back across Hutch's chest. "Don't worry, Sergeant, we won't neglect your partner while you're gone." He glanced at his watch. "Besides, I really do have to make rounds. So why don't you and I leave? Maybe he'll sleep if we talk outside."

He walked over to the door and pulled it open. "Come on. By now this place should be getting on your nerves. I wish they'd paint it a different color. This damn green reminds me of the morgue."

Starsky glanced sharply around the room. "Yeah. Guess you've been there almost as many times as we have, huh?"

"I doubt it, but at least you know what I'm talking about. Now, the coffee shop has great coffee and good burgers. Why don't you take that break you mentioned? Your friend's condition has stabilized enough for you to get some rest."

Nodding, Starsky followed Mathews, noting he left the door open so the staff could see Hutch. Since the Collis brothers were all incarcerated, and Caulkins was in custody, Dobey had pulled the cop who'd been guarding Hutch. Starsky waved goodbye to the doctor at the elevator and rode alone down to the lobby.

"Sergeant Hutchinson? It's time. Get up!"

Hutch opened his eyes and tried to see who was talking to him, but the room was in total darkness. Weird, because he'd never been in a hospital where they turned off the electricity.

"Where are you? I can't see you," he complained, wondering if he should sit up or not. Everything hurt like hell, and his left arm felt like it was sunk in concrete, or something. He thought for a moment before remembering the cast.

"Oh, I'm here, Sergeant, right beside you. Come on, open your eyes!"

The voice wasn't Starsky's, but he did have a feeling he'd heard it before...where? "Quit with the Batcave crap!" he snapped, losing patience. "Turn on the lights." He tried to sit up, succeeding only in rolling onto his side before the pain lanced through his midsection. He sank back onto the bed, groaning, "Sorry, buddy, but this is as far as I can go."

Why didn't the jerk turn on the lights? Jesus, but he hated games like this. "Look, if you want to examine me in the dark, just slap some luminous paint on me and I'll glow like a neon sign! C'mon! Goddammit!"

He was trying to sit up again when someone struck him a terrific blow on the cheek. "What—" Another blow, this time on the side of his head, making him dizzy.

"Did you think you could escape, coward? Even hell hates your kind! Down here you're cops to save your ass. This is for Lud!"

Hutch cried out as unseen fists beat at him, smashed into his body, ripped the IV out of his arm...he had to get away, had to escape...had to find Starsky. He swung at the blackness and lost his balance. As he fell, he wondered which level of Hades he was entering, wondered if there was a special place for cowards.

The squadroom was quiet for a change. Harold Dobey opened his office door and peered out to see why. Only three men were in sight. Sergeant Peters, his partner Sergeant Sabatini, and Starsky. The three of them were deep in a conversation, and Dobey heard the words, 'Caulkins', 'Fass', and 'cutter' all mentioned. Peters and Sabatini had been two of the cops who had apprehended Keating's infamous cutter, Alonzo. That gentleman surprisingly, had been only too eager to incriminate the dead crook as well as the living Caulkins. With his turning state's evidence, it looked like a solid case against the ambitious assistant DA, especially since the autopsy performed on John Templeton had found a tiny puncture wound in his carotid artery. Caulkins had expected Templeton's body to be badly smashed in the pre-arranged accident. As luck would have it, however, Harry Collis had ever-so-carefully fastened the seat belt around Templeton's corpse, thus preventing him from going through the windshield. Call it Fate, Karma, or just bad luck, it meant Caulkins was in big trouble.

Filled with a sense of satisfaction, Dobey was just closing his door when Starsky's phone rang. He paused, hoping it was nothing of importance.

Starsky reached across the table, nearly upsetting his coffee cup as he scooped up the receiver in his left hand. "Yeah. Detective Starsky here..." He winked at the other two detectives. But almost immediately his body tensed, a frown knot his brows together, and he glanced away, meeting Dobey's gaze.

"Yeah. Yeah. I'll come right over. He's okay, though?" The receiver was set down with almost delicate precision, and then Starsky slowly got to his feet, shrugging into his jacket.

The captain came out of his office. "What is it? Was that the hospital?" He felt his insides churn as he watched Starsky stack his folders neatly into a pile.

"I'll finish these later, Cap'n," Starsky said. "I've got to go...there's been some kinda accident." The blue eyes were troubled. "He musta freaked out...the doc wants me right away."

Peters and Sabatini got to their feet at the same time. "Is there anything we can do? Drive you down there? Do you want us to come with you? Maybe you shouldn't go alone." Peters glanced at his partner, who nodded.

"No. No. I-I gotta go alone. Hutch is kinda upset, ya know? He wants to see me." He pushed open the squadroom doors and hurried past the window, to disappear from sight. In a matter of minutes the three men in the office heard the squeal of tires as the Torino raced out of the parking lot.

Dobey exchanged a long look with the two detectives, then growled, "Go after him...find out what the hell happened to Hutch!" With that he went back into his office to dial the hospital himself.

It was still dark. The utter lack of light made Hutch even more certain the section of Hades he'd been tossed into was in its uttermost depths. He shivered, trying to curve his body to conserve its heat, but his middle hurt too much to make a good job of it. Ironic, he thought; he'd always rather pitied those who didn't have much backbone...who weren't very brave. But he'd never given any thought as to how Heaven or Hell might judge them. He certainly would never have believed they would be so despised, even down here. He could hear people shrieking, but their voices sounded far away. They were obviously on a different level. He tried to recall what his catechism teacher had said about expiation of sins and smiled bitterly. What was the sentence for cowardice? Fifty years? If you repented did you get time off?

Cut this shit out, Hutchinson. Get up and find out where in hell you are! He slowly got to his feet, his whole body protesting the movement of damaged muscles. Maybe he should try to reach the place where the voices were coming from; maybe they could tell him where there was some light—and heat—to be found. He began listening to the voices...God! That one sounded a lot like Starsk, but that was impossible. His partner would never be sent down here...Starsky was no coward. And what makes you think he really wants you anymore? What makes you believe he cares?

Hutch stopped in his tracks. Who had said that? Surely not himself, because he knew, knew, that no matter what, Starsky would always love him. Pain lanced through his chest like an arrow piercing his heart...Maybe he'd better wait right here until Starsky found him, because his partner had always said he'd go through Hell if that was what it took to save Hutch. The pain eased, and Hutch slowly slid to the cold floor. The voices were still there, still far away.

"What happened?" Starsky asked breathlessly as he encountered Dr. Mathews and two individuals in green scrub suits in the hospital corridor. He took one long look at them and a feeling of dread crawled up his spine. "Jesus. No one tried to kill him, did they?"

Mathews held up his hand. "Sergeant—Dave—Hutch is safe. That is, nobody tried to kill him." He glanced at his companions. "I'd like you to meet Dr. Debra Rosin, and Attendant Jorge Camacho. Dr. Rosin is a psychologist."

Starsky shook hands, studied their faces, and began to relax a bit. Dr. Rosin was grey-haired, grey-eyed, and stocky, but there were laugh lines around her eyes and mouth, and when she smiled dimples appeared in her cheeks. Camacho was small, lean, and intense, with beautiful liquid brown eyes. "Nice to meet you. What happened?"

Before anyone could reply, Mathews steered the group over to an unoccupied lounge. "A little more private," he explained.

Dr. Rosin shook her head, and made sympathetic noises. "Let's not waste time, here. Sergeant Starsky wants to know what happened to his would I, under these circumstances." She sat down, followed by the men. "Jorge, you start," she said firmly, "since you were the one who found Sergeant Hutchinson."

"Call him Hutch, and I'm Starsky, please." Starsky stared into Jorge's eyes. "See, we're partners."

"Ahh, then you are muy simpatico, si." Camacho shook his head. "It was very friend had pulled the intravenous from his arm and fallen out of the this!" The attendant stood up and contorted his body in a way that made Starsky wince.

"What I wanna know is why. Was he havin' a nightmare? Or did he just get scared?" He glared at Mathews, who shrugged and got to his feet.

"I'll see if the nurse can tell us anything," the doctor said, hurrying away.

"Sergeant. Your partner was in the throes of a nightmare, we believe. He was very withdrawn when we got to him. There was no concussion—he apparently fell on his knees, then tried to hide under the bed." Rosin's tone was matter-of-fact, but her sharp gaze missed nothing. "Will you please help me to understand the circumstances of his situation?"

Starsky nodded, then clasped his fingers together as he told Camacho and the psychologist all about refusing the assignment, Anders' death, and the revenge extracted on Hutch. The effect on the young attendant was striking. His dark eyes were snapping with ill-concealed disgust, his hands clenched into fists.

"Sergeant, your friend has suffered much, eh? Yet he defended his honor even with a broken arm. He is a brave man."

"Jorge is right, Sergeant. I'm sure when Hutch wakens he'll be able to see his fears are unfounded." But Dr. Rosin was not smiling. "Just how secure is your partner? About himself, I mean? Does he possess self-confidence? Is he negative about his work, his relationships?" Her eyes met Starsky's. "At the time, did his brother officers understand his refusal to take that assignment?"

Starsky got to his feet, facing both of them. "Lemme tell you about my partner," he began quietly. "In the first place, he can be as selfish and arrogant as any other man. He's wealthy, good-lookin' to a fault, smart, and in great physical shape. He's popular...up to a point." He couldn't help grinning, "See Hutch has a big mouth—like me—and if he doesn't like something or someone he lets it be known. He ruffles feathers, sticks his nose in other people's business, ya know, that cop's intuition stuff. But he's a mush when it comes to helpin' people, especially the down-and-outers. He's honest to a fault, and carries the worries of the world on those shoulders—if I don't make him drop them." Starsky ran his fingers through his hair. "Trouble is, he's proud...and for anyone to think he did a cowardly thing, it really upset him."

The words came slower now, and he knew the psychologist was studying him with those sharp eyes. "See...Hutch's family is kind of important, and he's always tryin' hard—sometimes too hard—to please them. They wanted him to stay in Minnesota and help in the family businesses, but he got interested in the law." He stopped talking, for Mathews was back, accompanied by a nurse.

Before Starsky could open his mouth, the young woman said, "I'm sorry, Sergeant. One of the patients freaked out and was trying to get into Sergeant Hutchinson's room. I helped get him back to bed...the guy was screaming outside the room and I was afraid he'd disturb him."

"That's true, Starsky. In fact, that's why I'm here. He's an old man with advanced Alzheimer's. He's in for evaluation at his family's request." Dr. Rosin shook her head. "His family can't cope with him any longer." She stood up, smoothing out her lab coat. Camacho rose at the same time.

"I would like to talk to you after you see your partner, Sergeant. If you can get him to tell you anything, to even communicate with you, then try to remember everything he says. It's important we find out what's going on in his mind."

Starsky nodded, unable to speak. As usual, it was going to be left to him to make that contact. Besides, he didn't want anybody else nosing around in his and Hutch's personal lives. He wondered if Mathews had told her about him and Hutch. Did it matter?

Seeing his look, Mathews spoke up. "We're wasting time, aren't we? Let's remedy that. Come on. He led the way to Hutch's room, then paused with his hand on the door handle. "One thing. Try not to be too reassuring. Some patients resent that attitude. Just play it by ear."

Mathews opened the door and Starsky stepped into the room. What had he expected? Hutch sprawled unconscious on the floor? Or huddled in a ball under the bed? The man propped up on a bunch of pillows, awake...watching him with those blue eyes, almost made Starsky believe in miracles. Almost, but not quite.

"I see ya decided to wake up. 'Bout time." He waited, wanting desperately for Hutch's arms to reach out to hold him, but there was only a wary alertness about his partner. He turned to meet Mathews' gaze. "Is he awake, or what?" he muttered.

"Hutch? Do you recognize your partner? You wanted to see him, remember?" The doctor's tone was matter-of-fact, not condescending.

Hutch's gaze moved to Mathews, and his expression changed. "Why were the lights out?" he asked in a puzzled tone. "I got confused, fell out of...bed." Again, his glance moved back to Starsky, and he lifted his left arm awkwardly. "I thought I heard you telling me to get out of bed...or maybe not." He averted his eyes. "It was so damn dark..."

Starsky instinctively moved closer to his partner, but noticed Mathews shaking his head. "Wasn't me. Last time I was here, you weren't hearin' anything anybody said. When did ya wake up?" He watched the light as it flowed over the fair hair, his heart aching. A laugh caught in his throat. "Funny. I figured you'd call me as soon as you came to. How're you feelin'?"

Hutch's chuckle matched Starsky's. "Like hell—as usual. Honest, Starsky, the first thing I want to do when I get out of here is go to dinner at Miceli's. Even before I go home."

Huh? Starsky was immediately alerted. Hutch had closed his eyes, and so Starsky gestured for the doctor to leave them alone. Mathews nodded, and left without speaking to his patient. Only when the door closed behind him, did Starsky go to the bed and touch his lover. He lightly stroked Hutch's cheek, and was rewarded with a crooked smile. "I see ya still got all your teeth. Man, are you lucky!"

"Starsky?" came the whisper. "Dante was of Hell are so cold you can't ever get warm." The eyes staring up at Starsky were wide with fear.

Swallowing, Starsky merely commented, "That where you've been? No wonder I couldn't find you." He kept stroking the smooth cheek, his fingers moving around to the back of Hutch's neck to fondle the wayward, matted curls. "Hutch, why'd you go there, anyway? Who told you to go?"

Cool fingers closed around Starsky's wrist, pulling his hand back and up to Hutch's mouth, where a kiss was placed on his palm. Hutch cleared his throat, "I-I don't know who—maybe one of the Collis brothers—it was too dark to see."

Starsky nodded, then sat on the edge of the bed, holding tight to Hutch's hand. "Do you remember taking the IV out of your arm?" He shook his head. "That's must've hurt."

Hutch looked down at his forearm, where a small bandage covered the spot. "That's rich. Here I thought they did it. Boy, that was some dream."

"Dream? Hutch, that was the granddaddy of nightmares! The doc told me you ended up under the bed, hiding from the dark."

There was silence in the room; the sunlight streamed in the window, its warmth striking both men. Hutch stared at it as if he couldn't get enough of its light. "How's Helena Anders?" he asked suddenly. "She have her baby?"

Jesus, just like his dad. "Yeah. A boy. Almost nine pounds. Mother and son doin' fine. Ya wanna hear about the rest of the family?"

The clear eyes met Starsky's. "Only because you're dying to tell me, right?" A half-smile played around Hutch's lips. "I hope they're as miserable as I am." A flash of Hutch's old spirit made Starsky grin.

"Damn straight, babe. Baby Harry, who didn't go along on the joy ride, is spillin' his guts, but he's still gonna take a 3 to 5 year fall. You ready for this? He was actually hired by Keating to drive Templeton's body over the embankment! Lucky for our side that they paid him off with extra-fine coke...he took too much, the rest is history...and helped us get Caulkins. But that's another story. The guy who was tailin' you—the one in that old Camaro? That was Nicholas Collis...he's the one who's gonna look out of the side of his face for the rest of his life. You oughta gold-plate that pipe wrench! Alex Collis—you wanna talk limp wrists! Hell, he was yelling about 'police brutality' 'cause you're a cop. Can you believe it? Then good old Natalie Scott went to see him...and his lawyer. Another one who's gonna spend a few years behind bars."

Starsky got off the bed and circled the room, warming to his subject. "As for the beefy boys... Jeez, Hutch, in a way I'm glad it wasn't daylight when you held them off. At least you didn't know how big they are. The one who damn near killed you was named Miklos...he's gonna go up for attempted murder of a cop. He used to be a boxer—Greek style—when he was younger, so they got him on assault with lethal weapons..."

Hutch held up his right hand. "No more details, Starsky, 'cause I already know them." He winced as he shifted position. "Boy, do I know them!" he muttered. Then, as the sunshine moved to a spot on the floor, he asked, "How long can you stay?"

Grinning, Starsky pulled up the chair and flopped down in it. He wished Mathews and Rosin could see how normal Hutch really was. Damn doctors were always so sure they knew everything. Hell, maybe Hutch would be able to go home in a couple of that was something to think about.

"I've got all night, and Dobey gave me tomorrow off, so I figured I'd stay as late as they'd let me." He half-closed his eyes, pretending not to see the look of pleasure that crossed Hutch's face. "So what about Miceli's? I thought ya didn't like it so much...too noisy."

Weight shifted on the bed as Hutch turned on his side to study his partner. "It is, but they don't care how long you take to eat...and I'm starving. A milkshake...a hamburger...anything."

Starsky kept his eyes half-shut, smiling to himself as he watched Hutch, but the smile disappeared when he saw Hutch glance wildly around the room, then pull the covers up. What was wrong? He sat up straight, searching the room for something that might have frightened Hutch. "Hey. I thought you were hungry." He got slowly to his feet and approached his partner. All that was exposed was the crown of Hutch's head. Gently, he reached over and touched one shoulder. "C'mon, Hutch, are you cold? I'll get—"

He never finished the sentence because Hutch began to cry.

It was dark before the doctors left Starsky and Hutch alone. Hutch was sound asleep, knocked out so he wouldn't hurt himself. Starsky had held him close, listening with increasing bewilderment as Hutch babbled and wept about the levels of Hell, and the pain he was suffering. Starsky remembered telling the doctors that Hutch carried the weight of the world on his shoulders if left alone—but had he really believed it himself? Hutch seemed to be retreating into a private hell, and how was Starsky going to get him out of it? All of a sudden the physical injuries seemed minor, and the darkness Hutch feared became real to Starsky, too. The room was brightly lit—in case Hutch woke up—and the glare bothered Starsky. He went over and lay down on the empty bed next to Hutch's, and wearily closed his eyes.

The next thing he knew, Hutch's parents were in the room, bending over their son, trying to get him to talk to them. He got to his feet and hastily finger-combed his hair. "I'm sorry about Hutch," he said. "I left a message for you earlier."

They turned to face him. "What happened? Dr. Mathews told us not to come until this evening, then we got your message saying Hutch was awake. Now this." Hutch's father pointed to the still figure.

Quickly, Starsky brought them up to date, telling them about Hutch's being hungry, about his seeming so normal. "I tell you it was like flipping a switch. The doc says being called a coward is what's bothering him. But, I dunno...he knows he's not."

Starsky stopped, for Hutch's father had turned pale as a ghost. "What's wrong? Do you know something else? Please!"

"Oh, no. Surely not that old wound! It's been so many years and no one's ever said anything to him." Hutch's mother gazed imploringly at her husband, as if seeking reassurance. Her blue eyes filled with tears and she fumbled helplessly for her handkerchief.

Starsky waited while Hutch's father automatically handed her his own handkerchief and patted her shoulder. "Easy, dear, easy. The human mind does terrible things to its host. If the possibility exists that Ken is still hurting from that incident, then Dave must know about it."

"But it was nothing!" she sobbed. "Even Margaret said so later on...he was so young then."

"Will you two please tell me what the hell is goin' on?" Starsky finally shouted. He pointed to Hutch, who was moving restlessly. "Spit it out before he wakes up, will ya? If it's that painful for you, then it must've been painful for him. Please!"

Nodding, Hutch's father went to stand by the window, the overhead light spilling over his head and shoulders. "One branch of our family has always had a military connection—my great-great uncle rose to the rank of General in 1918." Pride shown in his eyes as he spoke. "His sons enlisted, became career officers before retiring with full honors." He turned to smile. "Their enthusiasm for the military even swayed me when I was young and restless. I toyed with the idea of joining the Navy for awhile, but my father nearly had apoplexy when he found out. As you may have surmised, our branch of the Hutchinson clan are the businessmen—"

"Sir, I can appreciate the background, but what's the point of all this?" Starsky said quietly. For some reason, he'd never given any thought about what the other Hutchinsons did. They all made him uncomfortable.

"Sorry. I don't like to dwell on the past. What's done is done—" The grey eyes met Starsky's. "Ken had two cousins his own age from this side of the family, and the three boys were exceptionally close during their growing-up years. Grahame and Bumps, ah, Brandon, took ROTC as a matter-of-course, while Ken became interested in athletics." He smiled wryly. "Just a phase, you understand; he was destined for better things."

"Anyway, one night when the three of them were celebrating—and rather inebriated—they vowed to let nothing ever separate them—the three musketeers sort of adolescent pledge. The kind young men make before reality forces them apart."

"Mr. Hutchinson, your son is gonna wake up and I'm still gonna be in the dark! What happened!" Starsky turned to look at Hutch's mother, who was sitting with the handkerchief clenched in her fingers. He frowned.

"Sorry. To make a long story short, when the Vietnam war first started, Grahame and Bumps went right out and enlisted, even though they had been assured of appointments to West Point. It was a foolish, impulsive act—"

"And Hutch didn't sign up with them, did he?" Starsky interrupted, certain now he knew the rest of this story.

"No! No! Do you think I was going to let my boy leave home to fight over there?" Hutch's mother rose quickly and went to stand beside her sleeping son. "For what, I ask you? A group of—of people who resented us, who used their own children as decoys! Not my son! Never!" Hutch's mother threw herself across Hutch. "He's all we have." She lifted her head and spoke rapidly to her husband, "Let's take him home with us. We can do everything there...the best nurses...doctors. He's so far away from us out here." She caressed Hutch's bruised cheek tenderly.

"I think I know what happened. Hutch's cousins went to 'Nam and were killed, right? And then Hutch felt he shoulda gone, too." The idea of Hutch being forced to leave him terrified Starsky.

The older man nodded, his gaze on his wife and son. "He was going to go, Dave. But he had just been accepted at USC to study law, plus he was engaged to Vanessa..."

"So what? That didn't make him a coward!" Starsky retorted. "I don't understand why he felt so damn guilty." He studied them both. "So what happened next?"

Hutch's mother left her son's bedside and went over to stand beside her husband, her chin held high. "It was at the funeral. Since the boys died together, the family decided they should be buried in the family plot rather than in a military cemetery." Her eyes flashed with spirit. "Ken came of course, with Vanessa. They looked so handsome together, had a new sports car...Well, California seemed to agree with them both. If only we had known what lay ahead for them—" Once again the hanky dabbed at her eyes.

"Darling, that's not what Dave needs to hear. When Ken and Van entered the church, Bump's younger brother ran over to them and began striking Ken and calling him a 'coward' for not going overseas with his brother and Grahame. People ran to pull the boy away, but the damage was done. Ken, naturally, felt terrible. Van was furious. Naturally, they left, not wanting to cause a scene. They left the next morning."

"You mean Hutch never got a chance to talk about this with his cousins' families?" Starsky couldn't help but think about the noisy, very vocal confrontations at home, all emotions up front, everyone shouting or crying or laughing at once.

Mrs. Hutchinson stared at Starsky. "Why, David, Bump's parents felt awful, so did Grahame's. I'm certain they must have let Ken know...later." But there was a shadow of doubt in her eyes now, a tiny frown on her brow.

Starsky let out a great sigh before speaking. "I'm gonna play devil's advocate now, and I want you to know up front that my only interest is in Hutch's getting better. You do understand that, don't you?" He searched their faces, saw their bewilderment, and for a moment pitied them. "Look. Physically, Hutch is gonna get better real soon. The doc says he can probably get out of here in less than a week. But if he can't shake these bad dreams then his recovery's gonna be a long term thing."

He held up his hand when Hutch's mother started to say something. "Wait. Taking him home is the worst thing you can do, don't you see? He'll feel like he ran away again. Even worse, he'll be reminded of what happened with his cousins when he sees the family. Besides, Hutch isn't a kid anymore. He's a grown man with a life of his own, a job he loves, and...and me. And if you think I'm gonna let him go—" He shook his head in dumb misery.

Hutch's father spoke first. "Dave, are you sure you can handle this alone? You know we want to do what's best for Ken."

Jesus. Was that relief in the old man's voice? A surge of hope made Starsky feel dizzy. He focused on Hutch's mother. "How do you feel? Level with me."

She had drawn even closer to her tall husband, seeking comfort from him. The handkerchief was a damp ball in her hand. "Like any mother I want to take care of him, Dave, to watch him get better. But if you honestly believe he's—" she glanced over at Hutch, "—better off out here, with you..."

She looked years older, and very vulnerable.

It was no time to give an inch, Starsky knew. They hadn't grasped the implications of his possessiveness, might never do so until Hutch decided to tell them, but that was all right, for now. He tried to smile. "Hutch's vacation is scheduled for July. Maybe he can come visit you then. But now he needs me, needs me 'cause he's got to let go of what happened to him, and I'm the only person he trusts enough to confide in." He shrugged, smiling sheepishly, "Just like I trust him...we've been through so much together. Say your good-byes tomorrow. I promise I'll let you know if anything happens."

He held his breath while waiting for them to make a decision. The last thing Hutch needed was babying, of that he was certain. He shifted his glance to include Hutch, and saw his eyelids flutter, then begin to open. Putting his finger to his lips, he beckoned to Hutch's parents to go over to their son. He owed them that much satisfaction at least.

"Ken? Darling, it's Mother...can you hear me?" Mrs. Hutchinson sounded like a girl, her voice high and sort of breathless. Starsky watched her stroke Hutch's hair into place, then reach for her husband's hand. "Darling, Dad's here, too. Wake up and look at us, please...oh, Ken."

Hutch opened his eyes, made an effort to focus on the couple hovering so close, and apparently realized he wasn't dreaming. A crooked grin curved his mouth. His right hand moved slowly up and over to grasp his mother's fingers. "Hi," he croaked. "How long have you been here?" His gaze shifted and met Starsky's.

"Hi, partner. How's it goin'?" Starsky said softly, still keeping away from the bed. "I'm gonna go down to the desk and let the nurses know you finally woke up."

Hutch shook his head, "Sure, so they can come in and stick me full of holes again. Some pal you are." But his eyes said something entirely different.

As Starsky closed the door he heard Hutch's father telling his son how proud he was of him and the job he was doing. Good. With a little help, maybe the worst was over. He leaned up against the door frame, grinning as an orderly hurried by. What the hell, the nurses were all busy. Besides, Hutch needed strokes more than shots right now.

April gave way to May. As the sun lingered longer each day and began its climb into summer, Hutch grew stronger. While Starsky was at work, he spent his time sorting through years of memorabilia. Hampered by the heavy cast on his arm, he was limited to light tasks and daily rest periods. So, rather than have Starsky cook each evening—when he wasn't on call—Hutch arranged to have their dinners sent up from Chez Helene. That way he didn't have to face an incessant barrage of burritos and pizza, and Starsky appreciated the change in menu. They spent all their spare time house hunting.

He sat on the couch, staring down at a four-inch stack of snapshots. Pictures of houses; back yard, of garages and front doors...the list was endless. He smiled, rubbing absently at the scar on his scalp, remembering the places that seemed ideal until they had returned a second—and third—time. He picked up the pile, selecting one particular group to scrutinize. A Spanish-style stucco house was by far and away Starsky's favorite, and he had to admit it ran a close second to his own first choice.

He knew part of its serene charm had to be the fact that, secluded as it was, just two blocks away lay his partners beloved 'civilization'. Small stores, fast food joints, a garage, a theatre...all were presented in the pictures as part of a 'swell' neighborhood.

You are so full of life and love, aren't you? No matter how old Starsky got, his zest for life would never change. It wasn't a case of eternal childhood per se; it was the simple fact that his lover seemed able to keep the best of all the ages and stages they went through.

The phone rang, and he winced as he stretched to reach it, certain parts of his body protesting the sudden move. "Yeah," he said, looking for a pencil in case Starsky was leaving a message.

"Hey, my man, how's the body beautiful healing?" Music swelled in the background.

"Hey, yourself, Hug. I'm doing okay, thanks." Hutch paused, Huggy was trying to give orders over the din of the bar.

"Sorry, Hutch, but I got a note here saying you want a keg of beer delivered on Saturday, that right?"

Hutch grinned. "What is this, anyway? An hour ago some florist called and said he was supposed to deliver two dozen roses. Before that it was a deli with one of those six-foot submarine sandwiches." It had to be Starsky, but what was the idiot up to?

"Dunno anything about your plans, Hutch, all I know is I'm holding the order—you want it?" The sound of crackling paper came across the line.

"Sure, why not? Make it the best you've got. Then come over and help us drink it." He said good-bye, then sat wracking his brain. Had he forgotten a birthday...? No, it was something else, something far more important than that... The penny dropped, and he whistled in surprise; Saturday marked the tenth anniversary of their partnership. He tossed the pictures onto the coffee table, and settled down on the couch, pillows under his head and arm. Ten years? Ten marvelous years working with someone he loved. He was a lucky man. His eyelids drooped as he felt sleep stealing over him. He welcomed it; there had been no more nightmares since the doctors had made him understand why he'd been so afraid of being called a coward. Apparently his folks had called Bumps' and Grahame's parents, because he'd received long letters from both families. Best of all, though, had been Starsky's warm body snuggled up to his ever since he'd been discharged. God, that had had to be the best medicine in the world, drifting off to sleep in those strong, loving arms. Ten years...sleepily he wished for at least thirty more. Thirty together in their home.

His eyes flew open and he sat up, tossing the pillows onto the floor. Of course, now he knew why the fuss; their days as partners would be over in six weeks. His appointment as lieutenant had finally come through, and this was Starsky's way of celebrating both events. Since that was the case, this anniversary called for something special. Now, what would please Starsky the most? The answer came from the photos before him. He dragged the phone across the coffee table, chuckling to himself. "Oh, babe, I'm finally gonna do something right...blow your ever-lovin' mind!"

He dialed quickly, looking through the scattered snapshots. "Hello? James? This is Ken Hutchinson. Hmm? Oh, fine. Yeah, ribs are still sore as hell, but everything's healing okay. Say, I need a bank draft for ten thousand dollars. Can you messenger it to me at my home address by tomorrow?" He shifted, watching the light filter through the blinds, then said, "Oh, make it out to David Michael Starsky, will you? S-T-A-R-S-K-Y. Right, my partner. Thanks, James, give my best to your family." He hung up, and went through the pictures once again, choosing the one of Starsky in front of the Spanish stucco. How beautiful he was, dark curls shining in the sun, that crooked grin lighting his face. "I love you, Starsk," Hutch murmured as he retrieved the pillows. He lay back down, holding the photo of Starsky against his chest. This time sleep came quickly.

"G'night, and thanks." Starsky closed the door to the apartment as the last guests left. He was exhausted, the place was a shambles, and Hutch was as drunk as he was. He looked across the room at his lover, who was staring back owl-eyed, trying to stand up.

"Easy, you're gonna fall flat on your face and break something else," he cautioned.

"Can't," Hutch informed him gravely, "already had everything broken, didn't I?" He sounded vaguely pleased with himself.

Starsky laughed, but inside his heart ached. "Not quite, so don't brag. You just looked like the Painted Desert for three weeks."

Blue eyes met his, a light dancing in their depths. "You telling me I'm a work of art?" Hutch put one hand on his hip and tried to look sexy. With his arm in a cast the effect was ludicrous. "Well?"

"Pal, I hate to be the one to tell you, especially since Mario was after your bod all evening, but you look more like an ad for Medicare." That wasn't strictly the truth, but Hutch was too drunk to be insulted. He slipped his arm around his lover's waist, leading him back to the couch. "Did you have a good time? Were you surprised?" He smoothed back a wayward tuft of silky, pale hair, remembering the way it had looked three weeks ago.

Hutch considered, blinked, then nodded. "Had a wonderful time, but I knew, and you knew I knew." He raised his right arm, and outlined Starsky's mouth with loving fingers. "Thanks for the party, it was wonderful."

Starsky knelt beside him, hands on Hutch's thighs. "Ten years, can you believe it? I didn't think we'd stick it out. You were such a prick sometimes."

One blond eyebrow arched. "Oh? Well, that's 'cause you never took me seriously, otherwise. Besides, you drove me up the wall with your nutty ideas." He smoothed Starsky's eyebrows gently. "We're a pair, aren't we? Like a real couple, these days." Then, hands covering Starsky's, he said softly. "Dave...I've got a present for you. Sit here beside me."

Delighted, Starsky quickly settled himself beside Hutch, watching his lover with shining eyes. "I knew you'd get me're a big softie." However, his expression grew puzzled when he was handed an official-looking envelope.

"Hutch! You didn't! Not another tree? Migawd, I ain't planning on opening a tree farm."

"Open it, you jerk! Oh, and look at the picture first..." Hutch sat stock still, waiting while Starsky ripped the envelope open.

The photo tumbled out and Starsky picked it up, seeing himself in front of his choice for a home. "What's this for? I don't understand." He took the long slip of paper from the envelope and stared down at the amount, then back at the picture.

"Read what I wrote on the back," Hutch murmured, brushing a kiss across Starsky's cheek.

Starsky slowly turned the picture over, reading Hutch's wide scrawl as if it were a foreign language. "To my beloved...may we live here forever. Your Hutch." He shook his head, smiling in disbelief. "Are you tellin' me you're choosing this place, too? I thought you wanted the one up on the hill—a million miles from nowhere." He stole another glance at the check. "Jesus, Hutch, ten thousand bucks! I can't take that kinda dough."

"Oh, yes, you can!" Hutch cut in, speaking urgently. "It's my gift to you for the best ten years of my life. Put it down on the house and let's move in. I really don't care about the other place. Just so long as we're together..." He looked away, biting his lip.

Starsky very quietly set the check and picture down and drew Hutch into his arms. "I know why you did it. You can't fool me. We came awful close this time to losing everything." He felt his eyes burn as he leaned forward to kiss the trembling mouth. "It's okay, babe. We cheated the bastards one more time, and we ain't going to ever let them get us."

He felt Hutch reaching for him, pulling into that wonderful, strong embrace. He closed his eyes. "Never knew you were the good fairy, darlin'. Where were you when I was losing my baby teeth and could've used the dough?"

There was a muffled laugh as Hutch bent to open Starsky's shirt. "I was saving my money for today. And I get to pick out the wallpaper..." He lightly kissed the base of his lover's throat.

Starsky peered down at the blond head working toward his midriff. Placing his hand on Hutch's hair, he muttered. "Deal, but I get to do the bedroom."

Bright eyes gleamed at him. "And me. You get to do me, too."

God. Starsky wasn't certain whether he was drunk on love or liquor; did it matter? "Count on it, babe," he said rather breathlessly. In all the world, there was nowhere else he wanted to be. Even though they wouldn't be partners much longer, having a place of their own would make up for it.

He closed his eves as sensations washed over him. He pictured long evenings making love, bright mornings of never-ending sunshine and laughter, of curtains blowing in the breeze.

Me 'n thee.

It was all true; with Hutch by his side, they would move into their casa and make it a real home. "Me 'n thee," he said aloud, smiling into the shining eyes.