Down Roads Long Passed

The red light of the siren lit up the interior of the car, swinging its way around the circle of its path. The driver ignored the low flash in the corner of his eye from long practise; sometimes he felt weird driving without that intermittent light in his eyes. He also ignored his passenger, who was again muttering deprecations under his breath concerning the quality of his driving. As long as they arrived in one piece, he really had nothing to complain about.

That never stopped him, and if the man driving were forced to be honest, he wouldn't have wanted it to. The soft curses were as familiar, and in a way as comforting a presence as the red light. Rather than say so he snapped at his partner. "If you don't like the way I drive you can get out and walk!"

"Maybe I should! I'll get there a lot faster... and I won't kill myself in the process!" The rejoinder would have stung, had it been said by any but his partner. Or by anyone who didn't *really* know Starsky's driving.

Hutch let go of the dashboard as the car slid sideways to a halt. With one last glance at Starksy, an unspoken comment about his parking, he pushed the door open and was headed for the building. It was already surrounded by uniformed police, the blue and red lights of their bubble tops scattered across the front of the building like some outdoor disco. The building looked deserted- an old boarding house, in the middle of a dying neighborhood. The kind Starsky and Hutch found themselves going to more and more often, as they searched for the trail of a child pornographer. Every time they felt they'd lost him for good they found another pitiful piece of the puzzle- negatives passed over in a quick clean-up, a phone number scratched on the wall of a fleabag motel room, or the dirty, skinny, lifeless body of a child grown too old or willful for the pictures.

It was why the two detectives snapped at each other about one's driving, the other's sensibilities, and anything else they had available. It was easier to yell at your best friend than think about what you might find next.

Hutch flashed his badge to a uniform, and asked for an update. "We got a call, from a neighbor. Said she heard what sounded like a kid crying, and a man yelling in what's supposed to be a deserted house. Martins and Jacoby came to check it out, and the guy wouldn't open the door. Jacoby recognised him through the window."

"Reffelson?" Hutch glanced up sharply.

"Yeah. He grabbed the kid he had with him and took her into the back room. We've got them trapped in there- they aren't going anywhere. We've got him." The tone of the cop's voice said he knew exactly who they had, holed up here.

"When was the last contact?" Starsky asked.

"About two minutes ago. Said he wanted us to clear out, or the girl died."

"He won't do that... she's his ticket out of here and he knows it." Hutch's tone took a steel edge, that same edge it took whenever he was faced with the realities of who and what made his job so necessary. Starsky knew it meant his partner wanted to break something... he wanted to break Reffelson into millions of tiny pieces-- take pictures of them and publish *those* pictures, as if a warning, instead of the horrible ones of children too young to even realise what was going on.

"What do you wanna do?" Starsky asked him, trying to refocus his partner's attention to a capture, instead of revenge. He never thought it odd that his partner got so incensed when they chased these kinds of criminals. Perhaps because he got rather incensed, himself.

"Someone has to go in there, try and talk to him. Either he'll let the girl go, or we can try and get close enough to take him."

Starsky nodded. Then he reholstered his pistol, and slapped Hutch on the arm. As he moved towards the building Hutch reached out to stop him, demand why it should be Starsky instead of him. But they both knew this was no time to argue about who did what. Hutch began moving around to the back of the building, glancing back only once as Starsky headed up the porch steps and slowly reached for the door. No one had to say anything about possible traps, like a man waiting with a gun to blow the head off the first person inside. The uniforms all around gripped their pistols a little firmer, ready to defend- or avenge, the detective.

Hutch sighed, and rested his head against the smooth tiled wall of the shower. It had been a long day- but they were all long. This had been better than many, with a piece of filth off the streets and a young girl safely on her way home. He remembered that almost dead look in her eyes when Starsky had lead her outside and could only hope it would disappear someday. He felt that hastily buried stab of anger, that she had been rescued so soon, sent back to parents who loved her and wanted her home. That she wouldn't hear her father's voice saying 'send her to her aunt's, no one there will know'. Hutch told himself to be glad he'd had a hand in protecting her. Even if he'd had no right to protect-- He cut himself off and reached for the washcloth, buried his face in soapy fabric.

The worst part of the day had actually been the hours of paperwork. The trouble with working so hard trying to solve a case, was the reports that went unfiled for days on end. Dobey had cut them some slack, in light of the success won that day. Starsky had left early, promising to return in the morning to finish up his reports. Hutch remained at the station a couple hours longer, barely waving a goodbye to his partner as he sat hunched over his desk typing.

He stayed at the station as long as he could, though there were still several empty report forms laying on the desk when he finally had to leave. It wasn't a burning desire to finish the work that kept him at work, although had he been asked he wouldn't have been able to say exactly why he was delaying the trip home. He knew what it was, of course. He wasn't stupid. He simply couldn't have said it.

It would be so much easier if Marcus would call, beforehand. Then he would know when he should go home early as possible... and when to hang around the station, or Starsky's place, or The Pits, until he simply had to go home. Then again, he mused, maybe knowing would be worse. This way there was always a chance.... He drove home slowly, in no rush to find out if tonight would be a night like the others.

When he found his apartment empty, he simply shook his head and went to take a shower. It had been a long day, and he needed rest more than anything. Food, first, then rest. Well, ok- shower, food, then rest. But he would get to bed, hopefully quickly. It had been a long day. Even it had been a good one. Especially since it looked like it was going to keep being a good day.

The hot water felt wonderful, and he stood under the cascade for several minutes not moving. He felt muscles begin to relax, and wondered if it would be such a bad thing to fall asleep right here, in the tub, with the hot water splashing around him. Laughing at himself, he quickly completed his shower and grabbed a towel. Not that drowning under such circumstances would be so bad- if you're gonna die, die comfortable. Heh...

With his robe belted tightly around his waist, Hutch wandered into the kitchen to find something quick and easy for supper. He was staring into the depths of the icebox when he heard his front door open. A large, muscular black man stepped inside, holding a white paper bag. When he saw Hutch, he grinned. Hutch forced himself to smile back. "Marcus! I didn't think you'd come by so late." His tone sounded carefully, and properly, pleased.

Marcus shrugged, and walked over to the dining table, apparently well at ease with his unannounced presence in Hutch's apartment. He set the bag on the table, and the fresh, hot aroma of BBQ filled the room. "I knew you'd be working late... you have been all week. Figured you'd be ready for some supper right about now." He gestured to the bag, still smiling. He seemed to be in a good mood, tonight. Hutch wondered what that would mean.

"Great." He grabbed some plates and headed over, trying very hard to appear casual, and sincere in his pleasure at seeing Marcus here. At least eating supper would delay things....

Hutch watched as Marcus walked towards him, shirt discarded somewhere behind him in the other room. The firm ripple of his muscles reminded Hutch of the first time they'd seen each other, remembered the way those muscles had tantalized him, the way he'd wanted to caress that hard body, stretched out under such smooth, perfect skin. He'd been entranced by the sensual beauty of the man as he'd moved, and it hadn't taken Hutch long to invite him home.

That was four weeks ago. Sometimes it seemed like forever. Hutch swallowed nervously as Marcus came towards him, trying not to squirm as the larger man leered at him, waiting naked on the bed-- the hunger was so evident in his dark brown eyes and the curl of his lip. For a moment Hutch wanted to scream that this was all a mistake, then Marcus was kneeling on the bed and leaning forward, grabbing Hutch's head in his hands and pulling him upwards. They met with a savage, passionate kiss. Hutch felt his body begin to dissolve as Marcus' tongue thrust into his mouth, forcing his jaws open wider for the oral penetration. He shivered, letting the other man hold him up with the firm grip on either side of his skull. He was barely conscious of those hands, for a moment unthinking of what they would be doing later.

Hutch pulled his own hands around Marcus' torso, touching that skin he lusted after, still. He ran his hands along his lover's sides, thrilling at the ripple of delight his touch drew. Or maybe it was anticipation, Hutch couldn't be sure. All he knew that was after three weeks he had never been able to distract Marcus with any amount or kind of lovemaking. It didn't stop him from trying. Hutch continued the play of his hands, barely touching the waist band of Marcus' jeans. Marcus was still engrossed in his mouth and face, kissing and licking every patch of skin, inside and out. Hutch moaned, as the results of Marcus' ministrations revealed themselves, and he found himself rubbing his erection against the denim fabric still covering Marcus' own hard member.

Marcus pushed Hutch back down onto the bed, sprawled against the pillows, and began kneading Hutch's chest lightly. Pushing his hands back and forth along Hutch's body, he gazed along the firm, thin lines of his lover's figure. Hutch saw the impatient lust tugging at him, urging him to hurry. Hutch began moving ever so slightly, pushing himself with the motions of the hands that massaged him. He always forgot how wonderful it felt, being in bed with this man, even though part of his mind still whispered the fear it had been screaming all day. He found himself hoping that this time would be different, this time he would be content to have sex, coupling the way men were meant to. As Marcus ducked down to place the tip of his tongue on Hutch's erection, Hutch knew that hope was lost.

Marcus still had his jeans on, and that had always meant only one thing. The first week Marcus had stripped eagerly, and they had spent every night (and some afternoons) in bed. Hutch had felt a sense of dismay-tinged euphoria at the man he'd found; euphoria at the sheer joy of the energy and passion he brought to Hutch's life, dismay that he might have to find a way to tell Starsky whom he was seeing, so he could share his happiness instead of lying about it and hiding it. For seven days Hutch had spent every waking hour smiling, and every sleeping hour wrapped in Marcus' arms.

Then came the night Marcus left his jeans on, and began licking Hutch, just like tonight. Hutch tried to wriggle away, fighting his body's desire to immerse itself in the sensations being delivered by the skillful tongue wrapping itself around one tender part of Hutch's body. He moaned, as Marcus nibbled at the shaft and stroked a finger down the inside of his thigh. He lifted his leg almost without thinking, as if his body knew it should grab whatever pleasures it could, while it could. Hutch suddenly gasped as Marcus placed a single finger inside him.

He didn't look down to see the man lying between his legs. Instead he stared at the ceiling, listening to himself groan and feeling his body trembling, trying desperately to ignore what was coming next and concentrate on the ecstasy of the moment. He didn't know if Marcus would even let him come... Just as he felt he was going to explode into orgasm he felt Marcus' hand and mouth withdraw. For a moment there was a cold silence and Hutch could only try and breathe in the absence of the stimulation.

Then before he could sit up, try to move or even say a word, a fist slammed into his stomach. He doubled over, rolling onto his side, and all thoughts of pleasure were driven from his body. He found himself shaking, and heard that voice in his head which had been saying all along, 'I told you, I told you, I knew it would happen...' Hutch told it to shut up and yelled out loud as another fist came crashing down against his thigh. He was suddenly glad he'd curled up; once before Marcus had hit him low, right into still-aroused genitals. He had been amased he hadn't spit up blood, after that.

Hutch remained motionless, arms wrapped around his head and chest. His only choice was to lie still and wait for Marcus to finish, and leave. Sometimes the man would only hit him a couple times before he'd had enough. Sometimes he would take his belt, and leave burning welts up and down Hutch's body. Sometimes he would jerk himself off as Hutch lay on the bed, bleeding and whimpering. So far this time he was only using his fists, and his jeans were still closed. Hutch heard himself beginning to cry anyway, and quickly buried his face in the pillow to muffle it. As much as he hated Marcus' beatings, he hated the laughter at his fear even more. Somewhere in a corner of his mind a voice cried out that it wasn't fair, that despite every good thing he'd done he still didn't deserve the protection, the rescue, that a twelve year old girl could have. He silenced it with the numbing placations which were automatic and mostly unheard.

Suddenly he realised Marcus had gone into the other room, getting his shirt and the leftovers from dinner. Hutch remained absolutely still, until he heard the click of his front door closing. Then he carefully stood up, ignoring for now the twinge of the bruises. He took a moment to check that Marcus had actually left, then went into the bathroom to clean himself up. He moved akwardly, the twinge of his newest injuries flaring all over. He kept his gaze down, away from the mirror, not wanting to see those haunted eyes accusing him. Accusing him of being weak, of being frightened, of deserving every blow he got. Accusing him of finding someone who knew, and treated him the way he ought.

When he was cleaned up he threw the blood-stained washcloth in the laundry hamper and went to bed, turning off all the lights and locking the doors, and pulling the blankets up around his body and over his head.

Starsky was whistling, as usual. Sometimes his cheerfulness bordered on the obnoxious. Sometimes it didn't even border. He smiled and waved to Dobey, who, having been up late with his little girl and the monsters in her closet, was feeling grumpy. Dobey just nodded, not quite hiding the snarl in his response to the annoyingly cheerful detective. It was obvious he planned to avoid Starsky, to let him annoy his partner who by now should be used to it. Starsky grabbed a cup of coffee and sat down at his desk, willfully oblivious to his Captain's silent mutterings.

The desk opposite his was unoccupied, still. Starsk turned around to ask if anyone had seen his partner yet, when Hutch walked into the squad room. He looked like he wasn't glad to be here; Starsky opened his mouth to ask how late he'd been up last night, to be dragging so much this morning. Then he saw the huge black bruise on Hutch's face, just below the right eye. Starsky stood and was around the desk before he realised it. "What the hell happened to you?"

Hutch barely glanced up. "Walked into a door."

"Looks more like you were running at full speed." Starsky believed him, and pushed Hutch's head to one side so he could see the bruise. "You have that looked at?" Hutch slowly nodded.

Actually he hadn't seen anyone, but he didn't feel like arguing with Starsky about going to the doctor. He moved away from his friend's inquisitive looks and sat down at his desk. He had to work to keep the grimace from his face- his leg was aching, and his stomach still hurt so much he hadn't been able to eat breakfast this morning. He sighed, and looked at the pile of reports waiting on his desk.

He felt grateful to have something simple and tedious to do this morning. Filling out reports would take his mind off thinking about his life. He glanced up as Starsky held out a cup of steaming squad room coffee. "You sure you're all right?" The look of concern was genuine, and serious.

For a terrified moment Hutch was afraid his partner knew, could somehow see the bruises that were all over his body, in various stages of fading, see the aches and the pains, the scars and the fear. Then he grinned softly. "Yeah, I'm all right. Teach me to walk around my apartment with the lights off." He felt like crying. If he could have told Starsky the truth, then none of this would be happening. He laughed out loud, a gentle self-mocking one appropriate to the situation he wanted Starsky to believe.

Starsk returned the grin. "Well you look terrible." He sat down at his desk, sipping his coffee, and began shuffling papers. "Good thing we have paperwork to do... if we were out on the streets, you'd scare away the folks we're trying to protect."

Protect. The word slammed into Hutch's gut, making the emotional pain flare with the strains of the physical. Protect. People needed to be protected. As a cop it was his job to protect... he wanted to hide his face, run away, at the shame that he couldn't even protect himself. But he couldn't even show that much of his fear and desperation, and had to work to keep his face expressionless. At least any twinges of pain could be written off as caused by the shiner on his cheekbone. He stared down at the first report he had to finish.

For a long moment he couldn't make out the words printed on the page, as the sounds of a fist hitting soft flesh echoed in his mind and the vision of the cruel twist of Marcus' face swam in his eyes. The dark angry face swam out of focus, the eyes changing to blue and the sounds of a fist replaced by the click of a shutter. Then he blinked, and he could see the report again. Taking a deep breath, he knew this was going to be another long day-- and not just because Starsky was already gearing up to tease him unmercifully about his incident with the so-called door. Hutch noticed with dismay that he was getting rather good at deflecting Starsky's comments which might have led him to reveal it all. Getting rather good at lying to his partner. He felt a wave of nausea hit his stomach.

That evening Starsky invited himself over for dinner. Hutch couldn't begin to show how relieved he was; getting bruises on top of fresh bruises hurt worse than almost anything else he'd gotten. As long as Starsky's car was down on the street Marcus wouldn't stop as he drove by, and if Starsky were here long enough Marcus would give up and go home. Hutch tried to act normal, hiding his urgent need to keep Starsky around. He nearly fainted in relief when Starsky discovered a game on TV, and settled in for the evening. To show the appreciation he could not explain, Hutch ordered a large pizza for their supper.

He settled on the couch next to his partner, not so close to elicit comments but close enough that he could relax in the rare sensation of letting his guard down. It was enough so that, after finishing off his third slice of pizza and second beer, he found his eyes closing. One yawn and he drifted away, into a sound sleep.

He woke up to find the TV off, the pizza and beer cleaned away, and a note attached to the single lit lamp. It read 'I figured I'd better leave this on for you. S' Hutch started to grin at his friend's teasing remark, then reality crashed in and he shivered, crumpling the note in his fist. He pushed himself off the couch, feeling muscles protesting and bruises reminding him of their presence. Gingerly he walked towards the bathroom, intent on a hot shower. Sometimes it seemed like those hot showers were the only thing that felt good, anymore.

He stopped as the door slammed open. Hutch found himself unable to move as Marcus walked in, or rather staggered. Hutch could smell the alcohol, and felt a wail begin in the back of his throat. He clamped down on it and realised, in a flash of detached clarity, that tonight he would have to defend himself or die. Perhaps he'd die anyway. In which case he was damned if he was going to let the man strike him without any attempt to resist. Hutch cursed himself that he'd waited so long to find any courage.

Marcus closed the distance, not detered by the way Hutch was standing ready, the fear on his face but not in the wary stance of his body. Hutch was sorry that he'd left his gun hanging on the door, now behind Marcus. It startled him, that this was the first time he'd even thought of using it to protect himself. It didn't matter now, though, for Marcus was coming closer and he had to keep his wits about him, and his fear safely tucked away.

"You tryin' a get rid of me?" Marcus' words were slurred, but not so much that Hutch had a chance of hoping he'd pass out.

"I don't know what you're talking about." Even though it wasn't true. One way or another, he would be rid of Marcus tonight.

"That guy... here almost all night! You' cheatin'...!" Marcus swung a fist, which Hutch deflected.

"That was Starsky. You should have recognised his car." Hutch bit off the words, remembering the first time he'd said them, cowering in the corner of his bedroom, shouting at the man who was beating him.

"You lil' whore!" Marcus obviously was beyond listening. He pushed himself at Hutch again, Hutch stepped out of his way, swinging a fist at the side of his head. He knew Marcus was stronger, in a fair fight he could not hope to beat him. But hopefully the alcohol would dim his senses enough to make the difference. Marcus glared at him, apparently unaware of the blow he'd received. He snarled a few more remarks, the same ones he'd flung at Hutch when he beat him, cursing Hutch's needs and desires, his perversions and weakness of will.

Hutch deflected the next swing and threw another of his own, connecting solidly on the enraged man's throat. Marcus growled, mostly unfazed. Hutch shoved Marcus away, and made a move to get around the man. Marcus' arm snaked out and grabbed him around the waist, throwing him backwards. Hutch hit the dining table and barely kept his balance, throwing another punch at the roaring, insane man. His fist bounced off Marcus' jaw, and Marcus just grinned. He reached out and grabbed Hutch's shirt, and threw him into the wall. His foot slammed into Hutch's back before he could move away. When he pushed himself upright Marcus' hands caught him again.

Hutch had been in enough fights to know he'd just lost this one.

Starsky smiled as he pulled to a stop by the curb. He'd been feeling great for days, ever since they'd captured that slimebag Reffelson. He grinned at the bright, clear morning, delighted at the knowledge that once again his Captain would be likely to growl at his cheery good morning. It didn't matter, though. Starsky slammed his cardoor shut and ran up the stairs to his partner's door, wondering if he'd find Hutch still sprawled out on the couch.

When he saw the door open he had his gun out and stopped by the side of the doorway. "Hutch?" He called to his partner, all signs of cheerful mornings gone. When there was no reply he ducked inside, taking in the room as he entered. There was no one waiting for him, and the apartment looked like someone had turned it upside-down. He stepped further into the living room, feeling his heart pounding at what he might find- or not find. He froze when he saw the unmoving body lying in a heap by the kitchen.

"Hutch?" He moved quickly, still alert for any signs that the intruder was still there. Carefully laying a finger along Hutch's neck, he breathed a sigh of relief at the pulse he found. He checked his partner over carefully, and saw the unmistakable evidence that someone had beaten the shit out of him. He found the phone and frantically called for an ambulance, barely keeping himself from snapping at the operator who had to ask her questions twice.

Then he returned to Hutch's side. He saw the bruise on his face, and for a moment dismissed it as the shiner he'd seen yesterday- then realised it was on the other side of his face. There was a small trickle of blood along his mouth, thankfully the right colour and amount to simply be a cut in his mouth or lip instead of dark brown blood welling up from deeper inside. The bump on his skull accounted for his unconsciousness. Starsky tenderly brushed his fingers along Hutch's shoulder, wanting to wake him and find out what happened. He didn't for a moment consider Hutch wouldn't wake up.

He stood up suddenly and went to the bathroom, soaking a washcloth. As he headed back to Hutch something caught his eye, and he looked down. Another towel was already in the pile of dirty clothes. For a second he didn't realise why he'd looked back at it, then he registered the dark rust colour which had captured his attention. Blood. Almost like someone had cleaned himself up before.... Starsky shook his head and hurried back to his partner. If it had been serious, Hutch would have said something. More likely it had been used to clean something else up, maybe a shaving cut or maybe it wasn't even blood. He pushed it out of his mind, as he knelt beside Hutch. He still hadn't moved. Carefully Starsky touched Hutch's face, looking for broken bones. He rested the damp cloth under his head, where it would both soften the pressure of the hard wood floor, and give comfort to the split lip that had only recently stopped dripping blood. As he moved his hands away, he saw Hutch's eyes snap open, and heard the intake of breathe that precipitated a scream.

"Easy! Hutch, it's me!" Starsky quickly assured his friend. "It's ok, whoever did this, they're gone. It's all right... you're gonna be all right." He felt a tightening in his throat as he heard and believed his own words.

"Oh god..." Hutch whispered, then as he tried to move an arm to push himself up he screamed.

"What? Don't move, Hutch. Ok? Don't move." Starsky tried to hold his partner still, desperate to ease the pain without jarring any injuries. "The ambulance is gonna be here, soon. Just take it easy, Hutch."

For moment Hutch simply lay still, listening to Starsky's voice, burying the cries of pain and fear in the back of his throat. Starsky was here, that meant Marcus was gone. He could relax for now, nothing more would happen as long as Starsky was here. He closed his eyes and tried to breathe deep, and heard the pain coursing through his body. "My arms..." he whispered, feeling the distancing daze of shock beginning to settle around him.

"What?" Starksy's voice was comforting, close by and trusted.

"I think they're broken," Hutch told him, not quite remembering how it had happened, only vague images of feeling the floor rushing up beneath him, the impact of a foot landing all over his back and legs, being hauled up by one arm and was that the shattering of a bone, as something too hard and too fast slammed into it? He couldn't be sure, he didn't want to know. He wanted nothing more than to close his eyes and wake up, find it was all a horrible dream.

"Both of them?" Starsky's incredulous whisper broke through the images, and then he felt gentle brushes of Starsky's fingers along his arms, touching the places where each forearm had been snapped. "Oh god, Hutch..." Starsky's shocked voice was silent for a moment. Then, "Hutch... who did this? Did you recognise them?" The flat, sharp tone of his anger crept through.

"No..." Hutch barely shook his head.

"How many of them were there? Can you describe them?"

"No, no." Hutch sounded scared, shaking his head harder at Starsky's questions. If he told, then Marcus would spill everything, all of Hutch's desperate secrets, and then much more would be lost, more precious than blood and bone.

"Did you see any of them? Anything, that might help me find them? Did you hear any voices?" He whispered the questions, softly but urgently.

Hutch continued to whisper, "No" over and over, until it was no longer clear if he was answering Starsky's questions, or saying something completely different.

"Hutch?" He brushed a finger lightly across Hutch's forehead, avoiding any bruises. "Hutch, it's ok..."

"No, no, please no..." Hutch began crying, repeating his last defense against the man who'd turned on him so thoroughly, so cruelly. The flashes of fists coming at him, solid blows hitting into him, hands turning him over and taking anything they wanted... scenes from every night interspersed with the white explosions of a camera's flash and the voice telling him he must have encouraged it filled his mind until he began wishing again for unconsciousness. Through it all he realised he was hearing something, sound repeating in a soft peaceful tone, words that sounded like they might be of safety, protection, comfort. He tried to reach out to them and found himself lying on his side with Starsky hunched over him, trying to hold him and telling him everything was going to be ok.

Even though he knew it wouldn't, it was so good to hear. Hutch wanted to reach out and grab onto him, hold himself someplace safe where nobody could touch him. But Marcus had seen to that impossibility, breaking his arms to ensure he would lie here, helpless. And suddenly, instead of wanting to run and hide, screaming and crying, he wanted to find Marcus and break every bone in *his* body. And he could, he realised. All he had to do was tell Starsky the man's name, and Marcus would be lucky to escape with anything intact. All he had to do was tell Starsky....

He listened to Starsky tell him he would be all right, still asking for any information he could share. Who had attacked him, such an easy question. Hutch closed his eyes, and wished again that everything would go away. He *couldn't* tell Starsky, he simply couldn't. He'd lose too much if he told. This time his request was answered, and he drifted away into the dark, empty sleep of unconsciousness.

"What have we got?" Starsky demanded, as his captain walked up to stand beside Hutch's hospital bed.

"How is he?" Dobey asked, indicating the still sleeping figure, ignoring the question for now. He looked awful, with two casts from wrist to elbow and two black bruises covering his face.

"The doctor says he's gonna be ok." Starsky's dejected, hushed tone said something else. Dobey gave him a penetrating stare.

"What is it, Starsky?"

Starsky swallowed nervously. "According to the doctor... Hutch has got bruises all over his body. Back, legs, sides, chest... everywhere." He saw Dobey's expression harden, and continued. "But the thing is, some of the bruises are about a week old. Others are a few days old."

"So somebody's been doing this all week long?" He sounded as shocked as Starsky felt.

"Looks that way... but that ain't all." His voice dropped, not wanting to say the next. "He's also got... scars up and down his backside. Long, skinny... like somebody," the thought made him want to scream, rip things apart. "Like somebody whipped him. And the doc says some of those are at least three days old. And some are probably a couple weeks old."

Dobey simply stared for a silent moment. "Are you trying to tell me, that for the last two weeks, somebody has been beating on Hutch? And he hasn't said anything?"

"It looks that way... Captain, I don't understand! He hadn't said a word to me! Yesterday he said he walked into a door, that's how he got the bruise on his face. He never said a word about... anyone beating him up." Starsky sounded like he wanted a better explanation, like maybe the doctor had gotten his patients mixed up and Hutch wasn't really covered in scars and bruises, inflicted over a period of time.

"Maybe we should find whoever did this, and ask him a few questions." His voice was hard.

"Do we know who did it?" Starsky seized on the possibility of information.

"We're not sure... but the lab came up with some fingerprints. There were three sets, all over Hutch's place. His, yours, and one other man's. From the number and placement of the prints, he'd been in Hutch's apartment a lot. Maybe... maybe even several times over the past two weeks."

"Name?" Starsky snapped it out, cold and hard towards this man who might be responsible for his partner's injuries.

"Marcus Delgado. Here's his address. And Starsky... take it easy, will you? No unnecessary roughness. We don't want his case thrown out of court because of police brutality."

Starsky just glared, and then nodded. No *unnecessary* roughness. But maybe the guy would resist. He glanced at the slip of paper and made a move for the elevator. Before he left, he turned back to Dobey. "The doc said he was gonna sleep all morning... they gave him painkillers and stuff. If he wakes up before I get back, tell him where I've gone." Dobey nodded, and watched Starsky leave.

Starsky pounded on the door one more time. No one was answering, and it sounded like no one was home. He counted to five, and then checked the door again. Locked, but one of those stupid locks that popped easily. He jimmied it open, somewhat surprised he'd realised that kicking it open, while more satisfying, would get him into unneeded trouble. He entered the small apartment, gun drawn just in case. The place was a mess, dirty laundry and newspapers scattered everywhere. It didn't take long to discover there was no one at home, and Starsky holstered his gun and began to search.

He looked for anything that would tell him just what the hell was going on. The living room and kitchen yielded nothing of interest. He headed into the bedroom, and again found a mess. The bed looked like it had never been made, used dishes lay stacked on the nightstand. Starsky found a few magazines which at first merely indicated the man's interest in weightlifting. A closer look told him that wasn't their only purpose- the one on bottom was unabashedly filled with pictures of nude musclemen. Starsky simply noted it, and continued his search.

Still there was nothing to tie him to Hutch. His papers and little black book didn't have any information to show he knew Hutch, or even anyone else who knew Hutch. Starsky was about to throw up his hands in frustration when he looked in the bathroom. There, hanging on the hook on the back of the door, was a blue shirt. Not remarkable, until he recognised it. Hutch's. He took it off the hook and looked closer. It looked exactly like Hutch's, even down to the rip along one sleeve Hutch kept saying he'd repair.

It made no sense. Why would Marcus Delgado have Hutch's shirt in his bathroom? The most logical explanation was that it wasn't Hutch's shirt, just one that looked like it. Nevermind the shirt was much smaller than any of the other clothes draped around the apartment. If it was too small for Marcus then it probably belonged to a boyfriend. Starsky hung it back up and gave the place another quick examination. After fifteen frustrating more minutes he had to admit there was nothing here to suggest why Delgado's fingerprints were all over Hutch's apartment.

Which meant he would have to go to Hutch's apartment to find out. Starsky relocked the door behind him, and headed down to his car, mulling it all over. He kept mulling, and when he got to Hutch's place he was no closer to figuring it out. Starsky jogged up the steps, and let himself inside with the key Hutch kept outside his front door.

The lab had definitely been here. They hadn't made a mess, at least not one noticeable over the wreck Hutch's attackers had made. Starsky wasn't sure why he thought there had been more than one, unless it was simply that otherwise Hutch should have had a better chance, shouldn't have gotten beaten so soundly. It didn't explain the injuries he'd gotten over the last two weeks, but Starsky didn't really want to think about those. It just... didn't make any sense at all.

Starsky looked around, reasonably confident he would recognise something that didn't belong to his partner. As he looked he tidied the place some, making a note to himself to clean it all up before he brought Hutch home. A broken lamp he set aside, not sure if it could be repaired. Dishes, chairs, and books he returned to their places. But there was nothing to suggest Marcus Delgado was a friend, or even an acquaintance of Hutch's. Starsky found a phonebook in a desk drawer, not one he'd ever seen Hutch use. Starsk began flipping through it, looking for Delgado's name.

He noticed half a dozen initials, and first names he didn't recognise. It didn't make any sense, although a deep pit of foreboding was settling in his gut. Then he saw the initials MD, and a phone number. With marked trepidation Starsky called the operator and asked her to track the number. He wasn't very surprised when she read off Delgado's home address. He thanked her and hung up, wondering what he should do now.

He reminded himself that all he had established was that Hutch and Delgado knew each other. Well enough that Delgado had been at Hutch's place several times, and Hutch had his phone number written down. It might not mean anything, even if it was a 'secret' phonebook. Starsky slid the book into his jacket pocket, with the intent of tracking down everyone in it to find out why Hutch would have their numbers... why he'd have them hidden away. He began searching the other rooms for clues which made more sense, and which didn't scream of something ugly-- something ongoing, something which had Hutch's full participation.

Starsky churned everything around, trying to find some new angle that would make all the pieces fall together and explain what had happened. Maybe this Delgado guy was involved in something, and Hutch had gotten caught in the middle. That sounded possible... except for the week-old bruises, and scars. Unless Hutch was *protecting* Delgado for some reason.

Starsky knew he'd have to have a very long talk with Hutch later. *He* knew what was going on, knew why he'd been beaten. Starsky was sure of it now, he could feel it. It grated that he hadn't told Starsky before, as if he could not trust his partner with his problems. Starsky checked the bathroom, and saw that same washcloth in the hamper. He picked it up and realised that in was, in fact, blood. With a short curse Starsky threw it at the wall. A quick check told him there was nothing else in the bathroom to give him any information. The last room was the bedroom. Starsky sighed and started searching. There had to be something more.

He found it in the night table beside the bed. Magazines, just like the ones he'd found at Delgado's. And a small tube of lubricant, intended for only one purpose. Starsky sat down heavily on the bed and considered what he'd found. The words 'impossible' and 'he wouldn't' floated through his brain until he couldn't think things through. With an effort he stopped himself, and asked what conclusion he'd draw if he were investigating two total strangers, instead of a friend he had thought he knew better than his own brother.

It looked like two men who were lovers. A little black book of friends, boyfriends, ex-boyfriends, hidden carefully away from eyes who weren't supposed to know. The name and number of a new lover... who was beating on him. Starsky felt his stomach turn over. It wasn't... shouldn't be possible. But the sinking feeling he felt told him otherwise. Delgado was Hutch's boyfriend. That was Hutch's shirt, hanging in Delgado's bathroom. Delgado had been beating on Hutch, for the last two weeks. And Hutch hadn't said a word. Not about the beatings, not about the fact that he had a boyfriend, not about anything. With a yell Starsky threw the magazine he'd been holding across the room. He followed it with a pillow, and when he would have earnestly begun trashing the place he stopped.

What he really had to do now was talk to Hutch.

He was awake when Starsky walked in. Hutch looked up at his friend, his fear and misery unmistakeable. Whatever words and harsh demanding questions Starsky had been about to voice stuck in his throat, torn by the expression on Hutch's face. Starsky walked over and sat down on the edge of the bed, and reached a hand out, gently brushing Hutch's chest. "You look terrible."

Hutch almost grinned. "Thanks. Nice to see you, too." His voice was a whisper, as if he didn't have the strength, or the will, to speak.

Starsky looked at his friend, absolutely confused about what had been happening. He wanted to ask why, how, what... and he knew that none of that was important. Not right now. He shook his head slowly. "Hutch I'm so sorry."

"For what?" A hint of surprise echoed in Hutch's sad voice.

"For all of this. Hutch... why didn't you tell me?" Starsky's earnest plea echoed the pain in his partner's eyes.

He tried to deny it, one last time. "I don't know what you're talking about."

Starsky reached up, and placed his hand along Hutch's cheek, right below the black line of the bruise. He couldn't imagine what must have been going on, that Hutch would let someone hurt him like this. It was so unbelievable that he could barely accept the words he had to say. "Hutch... I know that Marcus Delagdo did this to you. I just don't understand why."

Hutch wouldn't look at him, staring instead at the far wall. The pale white wall seemed to accuse him as brightly as the anger in his friend's eyes. A thousand lines ran through his mind, ways to explain or deny or laugh it all off as some horrendous joke gone awry. They died before they could pass his lips, and he found himself shaking. Starsky quickly moved forward and carefully wrapped his arms around him, holding him close.

Hutch buried his face in his partner's chest hoping that finally it might all end. Unfortunately he still had one thing to do. Panic ran through him, screaming that if he said a word his friend would know everything and then Starsky would send him away...

"I couldn't tell you." He finally managed to whisper, turning his face slightly so he could catch his breath, and so Starsky could hear him. Not that he wouldn't rather bury his face so the words would get trapped, unheard.

"Why not?" His voice was quiet, singularly unaccusing-- Hutch knew it meant he didn't yet understand.

"He said... he said if I told you, or anyone... he'd make sure everyone knew what I was doing... that I was..." Tears choked his voice. Hutch wished his arms were free, though whether to grab Starsky closer or push him away he couldn't be sure. He wished this wasn't happening.

"He said if you told, he'd tell people you were gay?" Hutch's reply was a nod, pressed against Starsky's chest.

"I couldn't risk... losing my friends, losing my job...I couldn't risk losing you- my best friend, the best partner I've ever had. I couldn't risk knowing you... wouldn't be my friend anymore." He tried to ignore the fact that he still had all that to lose, only this time it would be his own fault. Words came tumbling out through the sobbing. "They thought I deserved it... that I started it so they sent me away..."

"Oh, Hutch..." Starsky tightened his hold on Hutch, trying to comfort the shaking man in his arms. He didn't understand everything Hutch was saying, but didn't figure it mattered right now. He rested his cheek on the top of Hutch's head, hearing the frightened tremors in his whispers, feeling the tears soaking through his shirt. He ran his hand through Hutch's hair, wondering how he could prove to his friend that he wasn't going to lose him. He didn't understand how Hutch could have gotten the idea that being found out was so much worse than risking his life. A myriad of thoughts swirled, wondering what he should say, what questions he ought to be asking.

"You got nothin' to be afraid of, you hear me? You're my best friend, my best partner- and I don't give a damn who you sleep with. I am not gonna stop bein' your friend because you happen to be gay." His sharp, insistent tone was contrasted with the soft touch as he stroked Hutch's head, and down his back, slowly and gently. Gradually the shaking went away. In a hushed voice he told his friend, "I love you. And nothing is ever going to change that."

Hutch moved back to lay down on the bed, still not meeting his partner's eyes. Starsky leaned forward- since Hutch couldn't very well do it himself with his arms in casts, and wiped his face dry. "I only care that you *don't* sleep with someone who treats you like this. You do it again and I'll thump you once, myself." Hutch half-smiled, and slowly nodded, still looking at the far wall. "Hey," Starsky nudged him gently. Hutch finally glanced over at him. "You're gonna be ok." It started as a question, but ended as a statement of fact. Because Starsky was going to ensure it. Everything was going to be just fine and he didn't care whose heads he would have to knock together- but he'd start with Marcus Delgado.


Starsky grinned. Hutch almost sounded normal, again. "You're welcome." He said it light and cheery, belying the tone of the entire conversation. He was rewarded with a small smile. Starsky sat on the bed, and calmly changed the topic, talking easily until Hutch had almost totally relaxed, his fears and shame apparently forgotten. When the nurse came in with the next round of painkillers, Hutch was content to accept them and drift off to sleep, with a promise to see Starsky again later that evening.

Starsky had deliberately not mentioned what he was going to tell Dobey, nor what he was going to do to Delgado.

For the first ten minutes Starsky simply paced, occasionally banging his fist against the door, or the wall as he turned. Dobey watched him, waiting...for the first ten minutes. Then he cleared his throat and asked, "Are you going to tell me what you found out, or are you going to take out my walls?"

Startled, Starsky looked over. "What?"

"Sit down." He pointed to the chair nearest Starsky. When the detective did as he was told, Dobey fixed him with his best level stare and asked again. "What did you find out?"

Starsky toyed with a pen, and banged his hand against his knee, still not sure what he could, or should say. Finally he said, "Captain... some of what I got to tell you has to be off record."

"What? What for?"

Starsky knew the rest of it would surprise him just as much, if not more. "Hutch didn't tell us about it because he didn't want anyone to know."

"Didn't want anyone to know what?"

Starsky shifted uneasily in his chair. "That guy, Marcus Delgado... he was the one who beat up Hutch."

Dobey stifled his move towards the phone, to call for someone to pick the guy up. "So what's the problem?" He glared at Starsky.

"The problem is... he's been doing it for a while now. Hutch didn't say anything because he didn't want anyone to know what was going on."

Apparently calm, Dobey pointed out, "But now that we know, it won't happen anymore. So what's the problem?"

Starsky ran a hand across his face, frustrated at trying to explain, without saying too much. Sighing, he finished, "Hutch didn't want us to know that the reason he was...that he..." Starsky took a deep breath and hoped Hutch wouldn't be too angry at him for outing him to the Captain. "He didn't want us to know that Delgado was his boyfriend. Delgado said he'd tell, if Hutch said anything about... what he was doing." Starsky felt a resurgence of the rage he'd felt, from the moment he'd realised just exactly what the man had been doing to his friend.

That rage seemed to spark in Dobey, too, as he said in shocked disbelief, "You mean to tell me Hutch let this guy beat him up, so *we* wouldn't find out he was gay?" Starsky only nodded mutely. It still didn't seem right, that Delgado's threat would have worked so well to keep Hutch quiet. He knew it wouldn't make sense until he had more time to talk to Hutch. Dobey fumed for a moment then asked "So where is he?"

"Who?" Starsky looked up from his ruminations about breaking heads, confused.

"Delgado! Where is he?"

"I don't know. He wasn't at his apartment when I went by earlier."

"What about his place of work?"

"I don't know... Captain, Hutch won't let us arrest him." He continued quickly, over Dobby's expression which clearly said '_let_ us?' "He won't press charges. Even if you and I don't have a problem with his being gay, there's other guys who might." He leaned forward, stressing his next words. "He would rather endure gettin' beat up, than tell us. You and I know, and he's gonna have to accept that. But he's gonna do everything he can to keep anyone else from finding out. Including letting Delgado get away with this."

"That doesn't mean *we* have to let him get away with it."

"I know that." Starsky made it clear that no matter what, Delgado would not get off easy. "But give me a couple days to talk to Hutch, ok? Right now he's scared to death of what'll happen if anyone finds out. Give me a chance to convince him that it won't matter."

"And what do you suggest we do about Delgado, in the meantime?" The sarcasm was carefully hidden under a layer of concern. Hutch was a good cop, one of the best. It would be difficult under the best of circumstances to come out, and these were not the best of circumstances. Finally Dobey nodded. "Two days. But I'm going to have Delgado found, and watched. And even if Hutch *doesn't* come around, in two days Delgado is going to be arrested. Sooner, if he tries anything like leaving town. Understand?" The threat wasn't as harsh as the words made it sound.

"Thanks, Captain." Starsky jumped up, and headed out. For a moment Dobey stared at his back, taken aback at the turn of events. Then he shook his head, and began shuffling papers again.

A week later everybody was happy. Except Delgado, who was awaiting trial for assaulting a police officer and aggravated assault and grievous intent to harm and a slew of other charges Starsky had creatively described. And except for Dobey, who was trying to explain to his superior why he'd let Starsky wait two whole days before arresting Delgado. And except for Hutch, who was home from the hospital and scared to death.

Starsky had visited him every day for the entire time he'd been in the hospital, and every day he'd had to go through the entire conversation again. Starsky had to repeat that he didn't care, he had no problems, he wouldn't rip Delgado's arms off, no one at the station was saying anything horrid, and yes, everything was going to be ok. Sometimes it only took a few minutes to reassure his partner, other times Starsky would leave after a couple hours, not sure he'd been able to convince him. Any frustration he might have felt was quickly squelched by the sight of his partner, lying in bed, arms wrapped in plaster, face darkened with bruises, and the unseen stripes that criss-crossed his body. The surge of rage at the man who'd done it, and the shocked regret that Hutch had borne it all to keep his secret, made it easy to be patient.

Even if he *did* still feel like strangling his idiot partner. He honestly couldn't understand how Hutch had been unable to trust him; he'd spent every night lying in bed thinking about it, trying to find some explanation. In the end he had to admit his partner had just been afraid of telling him. That realisation hurt almost as much as seeing Hutch lying in his apartment, battered and bleeding. Starsky promised himself that if he did nothing else he would convince Hutch he didn't have to be afraid.

He managed to avoid strangling him, though, and was even cheerful on the day he arrived to take Hutch home. Hutch was even quieter that day than he had been all week, saying nothing in response to Starsky's irrepressible monolouge. Starsk chalked it up to the same thing which had kept Hutch quiet and nervous all along- being found out, and didn't press him to talk about it.

When they pulled up to Venice Place, Starsky jumped out of the car and went around to the passenger door. He opened it, but his attempt to assist Hutch from the car was brushed off. He didn't mention it, only leaned back to grab Hutch's bag and follow him up the stairs. Hutch waited quietly as he unlocked the door, and then hurried inside- only to stop, suddenly, at the sight of his apartment.

"You cleaned it up." He gave his partner a surprised look.

"Of course," Starsky returned the look with a surprised one of his own. "What'd you expect, I'd let you come home to a trashed apartment?" He said it calmly, not wanting to get too close to the *reason* the place had been so trashed.

"I guess I didn't think about it."

"I fixed your sink, too. The faucet was dripping," He mentioned casually, knowing the sink had nothing to do with the damage Delgado had done. Fixing it had been a strange impulse, one he didn't question. Starsky took the bag to the bedroom and dropped it, and wandered back into the living room to find Hutch still standing in place. He carefully placed a hand on his shoulder. "You ok?" He searched Hutch's face, as he turned to stare at him. The pain and fear was unmistakable, though Hutch was doing a fair job at trying to hide it away. Starsky rubbed his hand down, then back up Hutch's shoulder and back, trying to reassure him.

For a moment it looked as though Hutch would finally admit to what he felt, then his eyes masked over and he asked carefully, "Are you gonna come back by after you get off work?"

Starsky laughed, surprised and relieved that he could alleviate one of Hutch's concerns so readily. "I don't gotta go back to work. I took some time off... what with you in those things," he indicated the casts. "You need someone to look after you." He didn't voice the other reason, that Hutch might not want to be alone here.

Hutch nodded slowly, reluctantly. Starsky didn't hesitate; he quickly took his friend in his arms. He held Hutch as tightly as he dared, not wanting to rub any still tender injury, but wanted to protect him from the pain simply by the force of his embrace. He said nothing as Hutch shook in his arms, trying vainly to put his own plaster-encased arms around Starsky, but having to give up and leave them hanging awkwardly at his sides. Starsky whispered, "It's all right, Hutch. Everything's all right, now. I'm here."

In a shuddering voice, muffled from the way his face was pressed into his partner's neck, Hutch finally said what Starsky had been waiting to hear. "Oh god, Starsk... I wanted to tell you so bad. I wanted to keep you here.... Everytime you came over I wanted to keep you here so he wouldn't come in. I wanted..." He could only bury his face in the fabric of Starsky's shirt, clinging pitifully at him with barely mobile fingers. Starsky rubbed his hand up Hutch's back onto his head, holding him in a firm embrace, trying to let Hutch know he was safe, cared for, and that nothing and no one would ever get to him again as long as he remained in the circle of Starsky's arms.

After awhile he pulled away, however. Sniffling quietly, Hutch stepped out of that warm circle of arms and half-turned, not quite surveying his apartment as if wondering 'what now?'. He didn't look up at Starsky, who knew he'd wait patiently, for though he would have the entire story from him, he could wait until Hutch was ready.

Seeing his nervousness, Starsky moved for the kitchen. "You want some coffee?" He didn't try to hide his smile, Hutch looked so forlorn and scared -- it wasn't something that should have amused him. But something inside him felt so good to be here caring for his partner when he needed it so desperately. *He* knew there was nothing to be concerned about, not now. So he could afford to relax and tend to Hutch, until his partner knew it too.

Hutch didn't bother answering, only walked around to sit on the couch. He didn't look over as Starsky put the water on to heat, and for a moment the silence was absurdly, comfortingly normal. Starsky got the feeling Hutch was trying to find something innocuous to talk about to forestall any discussion of just why he had to be wrapped in painkillers and plaster.

A hand on his shoulder nearly drove him into the roof; he whirled, coming to his feet, and stared wild-eyed into Starsky's apologetic face. Starsky had his hands on Hutch's shoulders, speaking easily and quickly trying to calm him down. "I'm sorry, I should have known..."

Hutch shook his head, cutting him off. "It isn't your fault."

Starsky ignored the self-blame not well hidden in his partner's words. "I know... come on, sit down... it's all right." He had a feeling he would be repeating those words a lot. He realised how patiently he reacted to that feeling, not surprised at the depth of his concern but astonished at the strength of it. His partner brought out the best in him, he supposed, and sat down beside him.

Hutch was trying to ignore him, so Starsky scooted closer and put his arm around his shoulders. "I know you don't want to talk about it. But you know that you're gonna have to. Whether it's right now, tonight, or next week. It doesn't matter. But I want you to know right out that it isn't going to make any difference. You are my partner, my best friend, and I care more for you than anyone else in this world. Nothing you could say to me will change that. Nothing you could do would change it either. Now, for whatever reason you let this guy do these things to you... it isn't as important as my convincing you that it never has to happen again. It *isn't* going to happen, as long as I have anything to say about it. You don't deserve to be treated like that, Hutch, and for as long as it takes me to convince you... that's for how long I'm gonna tell you."

Hutch hadn't moved a muscle, nor looked up at Starsky throughout the speech. When Starsky said nothing more, didn't prompt him or ask any questions, Hutch risked looking up. Starsky watched him calmly, seeing the fear and worry on his face, and knew his partner was wondering just how much- or whether, to tell him. That hurt him; he'd never before thought they'd keep secrets -- serious ones, anyway, from each other. He didn't understand why Hutch had kept it from him this long, but know... know that he *knew* why couldn't Hutch just tell him? How could it be so awful that he couldn't say it, even though Starsky already knew what had happened?

Hutch leaned sideways towards Starsky, and he quickly enclosed him in a hug. "I'm sorry... I know you're right..." Hutch choked, then plowed ahead while he had some little bit of courage to actually say it at all. "I was just so scared... I let him convince me that you... that everyone would hate me for what I felt. I don't know why it was easier to believe him... I guess I've known too many people whose closest friends abandoned them when they found out. I couldn't risk losing you, Starsk. I couldn't risk knowing that you hated me, that you wouldn't want to work with me, if you found out. Not losing... your friendship was more important than anything."

Starsky heard the pause, but wasn't sure what it meant. He didn't ask, content for now that Hutch had finally accepted the fact that he wasn't going to lose *anything*. Except a psychotic boyfriend. He rubbed his hand up Hutch's back, gently, feeling for the first time the muscles under his hand relaxing. He didn't mention the almost painful way Hutch's right cast was jammed against his hip, not wanting to let go of him.

"The water's boiling," Hutch said quietly.

With a grin, Starsky untangled himself and headed for the kitchen. When he brought back the mugs (one with a straw), he sat a small distance away, ready to resume some appearance of normality so that, for a while at least, Hutch could feel free to abandon the conversation. They spent the rest of the afternoon talking of things which typically filled their time together. Once Starsky was even able to cajole Hutch into arguing with him about the merits of reforming the electoral system. Halfway through the argument Starsky took a careful look at his partner, and was pleased to see that he almost- almost, seemed back to normal.

That normalcy faded rapidly when Starsky suggested they do something about dinner. Hutch suddenly looked away, staring uncomfortably at the wooden slats of the floor. Starsky nudged him. "What's wrong?"

"I'm not hungry."

"What d'you mean you're not hungry? You gotta be hungry after eatin' nothing but hospital food-"

"I said I'm not hungry!" Hutch whirled, yelling at his partner with a rage he hadn't shown in three weeks.

Holding his hands up, partly to ward him off and partly to placate him, Starsky moved forward, catching Hutch as he tried to step away. "Easy, come on... take it easy."

Hutch's burst of anger seemed to dissolve, and he hung his head. "I'm sorry... I just don't..."

"Don't what?" Starksy prompted, when he didn't finish.

Hutch looked up at him, the most pitiful expression on his face Starsky had ever seen. He held up his hands, and said simply, "How am I supposed to..."

He started to brush him off with a laugh, reminding him that that was why he was here. But surely Hutch knew that. His teasing smile never got past a gentle, understanding one. He laid his fingers lightly on top of one of the casts. "Hutch... I'm not gonna let you go hungry. And I know you're gonna feel weird, and I know you'd probably rather throw me out than be embarrassed. But I'm not going anywhere," his tone kept it from being a threat, only a comforting promise. "I won't go through the speech about how you'd do the same for me, because you know that already. I will tell you that you're not getting rid of me, so you might as well let me take care of you. Because that's what I'm gonna do. I'm gonna feed you, I'm gonna help you get dressed and undressed and shaved and washed and even turn the pages of your book for you. And there's not a thing you can do about it."

Hutch found himself staring into a pair of deadly serious eyes and felt as if he were going to melt. Instead he chewed on his lip, not wanting to burst into tears for something so... simple. Slowly he nodded, gratefully accepting the offer, until he realised just *exactly* what Starsky had said. Then then warm fuzzy feeling turned into a block of concrete that sailed from his stomach to his feet. He followed as Starsky headed for the kitchen. He tried to keep his voice calm, but forceful enough to show that he *meant* what he was saying.

"You're not gonna wash me."

Starsky looked over his shoulder with a gleeful expression. "Why not? Aren't I prettier than that Nurse Selmon? You let her give you sponge baths."

Hutch tried to glare, but the effort was wasted as Starsky was turned away, digging through cabinets and the icebox. "Starsk, I'm serious. You're not-"

"Well you're not washing yourself, with those things." He waved a can of something unidentifiable towards Hutch's arms. "And since they don't come off for a few weeks, either somebody's gonna wash you, or you're gonna spend a lot of time alone -- downwind."


"Look, I'm not gonna argue with you about it." He cut him off with a note of finality.

"Why not?"

"Cause I'm making chili, and I can't argue and make chili at the same time."

"Fine. Then just agree with me that you're not helping me with my shower, and get on with making your chili."

Starsky ignored him, and went about his task of chili- making. Hutch waited for a continuation of the argument, and when it was not forth-coming he nodded to himself as if he'd won, and sat down at the kitchen table. "Hand me a soda, would you?" All traces of the disagreement were gone, and he sounded rather like he'd decided to take advantage of being waited on hand and foot.

"One soda," Starsky set it down in front of him, dropping a straw into the bottleneck with a graceful flourish. He was grinning, as if he were enjoying the role of manservant. Hutch figured that despite his having very good reasons for needing his friend's assistance, he would pay for it eventually. Probably start with washing that awful car every week for a month. He sipped his drink, and watched Starsky cook. Wouldn't be so bad, with summer coming up. And he could no doubt get Starsky to help him, and then he'd just turn the hose on him... He grinned, thinking of the past hose fights they'd engaged in, with less provocation than revenge. He laughed, remembering that as of the last hose, car wash Starsky owed Hutch at least twice over.

Starsky glanced at him, grinning as he saw the smile on Hutch's face. "What's so funny?"

"Oh nothing... just thinking about the last time we tried to wash your car."

Starsky thought back, then laughed himself. "Oh yeah..." He turned back to throw the last of the carrots and onions in the skillet, and covered it up. He rinsed his hands off, the spun quickly and dropped the washcloth on Hutch's lap. Hutch jumped.

"Hey!" He glared up at Starsky, who only shrugged.

"You shouldn't have reminded me. Now I only owe you one."

Hutch managed to grab the cloth with two fingers, and flung it back at his partner. Grinning, Starsky deftly caught it in one hand and made as if to throw it back. Hutch held up a warding hand, and Starsky just laughed. It felt wonderful to joke with him again; the past week had been such hell. From the look of it Starsky felt the same way. Hutch realised he hadn't felt this good in a very long time. That scared him.

That night Hutch was able to avoid the argument of whether or not Starsky was *really* going to help him shower, as he'd had a sponge bath that morning in the hospital and insisted he didn't need to be washed again, so soon. He managed to stand mostly still and not hinder as Starsky stripped him down to his shorts for bed. Starsky had been relentlessly cheerful all evening, and the mood had rubbed off on Hutch. He was able to ignore some of the fears he'd been alternatively talking about and pushing away all day and all week. When he'd climbed into bed he felt as if he might sleep the whole night through.

Starsky grinned at him, as he tucked him in. Hutch returned the smile, about to tell his partner how much he appreciated the assistance. Then Starsky asked, "Would you like a bedtime story?" His eyes twinkled mischievously.

"No, I don't want a story." Hutch said it firmly, although he was holding back a laugh. He rolled onto his side, away from Starsky, listening as he walked out of the room. Just after the light was switched off, he spoke softly. "Starsk?"

"Yeah?" His voice was comforting, coming at him in the darkness, standing at the door like a guardian angel.


Hutch could hear the smile as Starsky replied, "You're welcome. Now go to sleep. I'll be right out here if you need anything."

Hutch's mumbled "ok" was half-lost as he fell asleep. He didn't realise- though he would not have been surprised to see, that Starsky stood in the doorway for a long time, staring at him. The light from the living room cast enough light for him to see his partner's face, softened in an exhausted but finally relaxed sleep. Starsky felt something that he'd felt often enough when he'd regarded his partner asleep, busy at work, or staring off into space thinking, unaware of Starsky's gaze. Starsky felt it more strongly, tonight, and it felt good enough that he decided not to ask what it was. Instead he stayed in the doorway watching Hutch sleep, until he felt tired enough to lay down on the couch and fall asleep.

Hutch opened his eyes, to find the morning sun making patterns on the bedroom wall. For a moment he didn't understand why that should make him feel so frightened, or so relaxed. They were just morning patterns of sunlight, something he'd seen a hundred times. Then he heard someone moving in the other room and everything froze.

He peeked over his shoulder, trying not to move in case he didn't want his visitor to know he was awake. His motion was hampered by two white casts; memory crashed in on him, and among the shrieks that told him how, where, why, he realized that his visitor was someone he didn't have to be afraid of.

"Starsk...?" He hadn't thought his voice would be so rusty. Perhaps his mouth was simply dry, or perhaps he'd screamed a bit more yesterday than he recalled.

His whisper immediately got a response, as his partner came around the bed and knelt beside it, face full of concern and his voice cheerful and lively as ever, as though Starsky couldn't decide what front he should present to Hutch on this first uncertain morning home. "Look who decided to wake up. You know I had breakfast half an hour ago?"

Hutch smiled, the teasing felt so... familiar. After what felt like a lifetime of being turned upside-down it was incredible to find something even so small, that was familiar and warm. He heard himself wondering how long it would last, once Starsky pulled all the truth from him and he decided, quite firmly, that he was going to enjoy it while he could. If Starsky left him, then... well at least he had experience dealing with that sort of thing. He opened his mouth to respond in kind when he felt his eyes well up and his throat tighten.

In a flash Starsk was beside him, holding him tight as the tears started. He wanted to hang onto Starsky, but the casts... the damn casts.... It didn't seem to matter, though, for Starsky was holding tight enough for both of them, arms around Hutch's back as he half-sat, half-lay with his partner. He was whispering, but Hutch couldn't make out the words, only registered the tone that spoke to the depth of his being, saying that here was safety, here was care, here was concern. Silently he begged his friend not to let go.

"I've got you, Hutch. I'm not letting go."

The response didn't surprise him, not sure if the words had been spoken aloud, not sure if his own had been. He let himself be buried in the fabric of Starsky's shirt, the smell of sweat telling him it was the same shirt his friend had worn yesterday. It smelled like Starsky always did after a long day of work or play, and it comforted Hutch in an odd way he hadn't expected. Finally he was able to breathe without breaking into more shuddering cries, and he took a moment to breathe deeply and collect himself.

"I'm sorry..." he found himself whispering.

"It's okay, Hutch. It's all right now."

Hutch tried to move, and Starsky eased him carefully onto his back, pulling a pillow over to prop him upright. Hutch looked up at the ceiling. "I should have told you. Then none of this would have--" the words cut off, echoing from places he didn't want to see.

A soft touch on his shoulder made him look over. "Hey. It's all right now, Hutch." Starsky stressed the words. "What you coulda done, or shoulda done... it doesn't matter anymore. When you can you'll tell me why you didn't say anything- but you don't have to apologize. I get the feeling this wasn't your fault."

Hutch looked at the clear gaze that was fixed on him, knowing what his friend was saying. Somehow his friend knew that the reasons Hutch had kept quiet were more than simply hiding his sexual orientation from others. He felt a moment of panic, that somehow Starsky knew more, suspected somehow what the reasons really were; then he felt a small cry release inside him that made him relax, as if every muscle in his body had uncoiled a fraction. If anyone would understand- or accept, those reasons it would be Starsky.

For now Hutch only nodded, and was warmly assured to see Starsky's brilliant smile in return. "So... what do you want first? Shower, shave, or breakfast?"

"I'm not hungry," Hutch said, not considering his choices but knowing he could not stomach food after the upheavals he had been and still was undergoing.

"Okay- shave or shower?" Starsk didn't sound concerned with his partner's lack of appetite, probably knowing it would reassert itself when Hutch felt better.

Hutch looked over at him, wondering if he could talk Starsky out of the second choice entirely. He wasn't thrilled about letting Starsky give him a shower, not wanting him see the scars all over his back, all the damage that he'd let Marcus do. He realized that Starsky had seen most of it last night when he'd undressed him, but still.... "Shave."

Starsky just nodded, and held out a hand, helping Hutch balance himself as he got out of bed. Hutch stood for a moment, naked but for his shorts, warm skin chilled by the morning air. It felt... real. He leaned into Starsk for a brief moment, then let his friend escort him to the bathroom, grabbing a barstool along the way.

Hutch had to admit, later, that there was nothing quite like receiving a shave from another person. Or perhaps it was receiving a shave from Starsky- he could definitely think of people he wouldn't want standing before him with a sharp razor, safety or no. Not quite as good as a backrub, but definitely... luxurious. He teased Starsky about hiring him on as personal valet after the casts were removed.

As he heard himself he marvelled at his own state of mind. Was it simply relief that Marcus was gone, and not ever coming back? Or was it something more, something about being here with Starsk taking care of him, that made the demons fall silent and allow him a morning's peace? He wondered if those demons would stay silent if he tried telling his friend the rest of it; a surge of panic threatened to swamp him and he mentally shook his head. No, not those demons. He stared into the mirror and watched as Starsky wiped away the last traces of shaving cream.

"You okay now, Hutch?"

Hutch looked up at that tone, quiet and sturdy, and knew that Starsky had noticed that quickly supressed moment of panic. He opened his mouth to explain it away, cover it up for what it wasn't, then he closed his mouth and nodded. Leaning sideways, he rested his cheek against Starsky's stomach, feeling the warmth and again that smell which filled his breath.

"Do you want to tell me?" The question was almost a whisper, unthreatening and certain.

Hearing his voice break, Hutch answered, "Not yet." He glanced up, in time to catch the echo of an expression that spoke of rage and torment; Hutch wondered why it didn't frighten him. Carefully, wanting to make him understand even if it would only confuse him more- not to mention worrying him more, he said, "It's something... I've never told anyone. But it isn't about Marcus." With that he fell silent, his head overflowed with the screams of demons who protested this casual disclaimer of their existence. He squeezed his eyes shut, trying not to listen to them but knowing- for indeed he had done this before, so many years ago, that the only way to silence them began with listening to what they had to say.

He opened his eyes to find Starsky watching him, deep blue eyes so unlike the firey gaze of his demons fixed on him, watching as if waiting to look into his soul where those demons lay. He should have run, he should have spoken quickly and blamed it all on Marcus, now safely gone and a target for all the problems of today. He should have buried those demons where even Starsky couldn't find them so he wouldn't have to face the possibility that Starsky, too, would know what to do, know what Hutch deserved. Instead he closed his eyes again, to interject the possibility that it might not be that way, that the demons might be wrong and Starsk was right-- maybe everything could be okay.

Arms went around him and the tight embrace broke through; he began crying, and as the arms stayed around him accompanied by that voice- always that voice, soft, patient, and tender, the demons broke free.

His head was pounding by the time he leaned away from his friend. His throat ached, his eyes stung, and everything inside him felt like liquid. He had no idea how long he'd sat like this crying into his friend's chest, nor any idea of what Starsky had been saying to him. He had an idea that it had sounded good and comforting. With the tips of his fingers, he clumsily wiped at his eyes. Starsky reached up and helped him, thumb softly brushing across his cheek. Hutch looked up and was shocked by what he saw.

Starsky's eyes were red and swollen, tear tracks clearly marking his face. Hutch's jaw moved mutely up and down, then he found his voice but no words. "Wha... wh... y..."

Starsky smiled. "You're surprised? Hutch... don't you know this hurts me, knowing you hurt so bad?"

"I didn't...." Hutch was staring numbly.

"Hutch, I love you. It kills me when you're hurting. I wanna... take you and wrap you up and keep you safe where all you gotta feel is happy, and no one can ever hurt you again."

It was, Hutch admitted, a bit overwhelming. It would have been unbearably so if he hadn't... already known. He found himself, instead of pulling away from a sincerity he shouldn't trust, moving towards it and letting it wrap around him again. The image of Starsky's face stayed before him, even as he looked away to push his face against his friend's body. Crying. Crying because he was hurting. Hurting because Hutch was hurting.

There were no words to describe it, although shocking and comforting came close. He savoured the embrace, feeling another fraction of his body uncoil. He took a deep breath and released it; hands rubbed up and down his back, and when Starsky spoke his voice was cheer and lightness again. "You ready for breakfast yet? Course, I should be askin' if you want lunch."

"No, thanks." Hutch felt drained, and all he wanted to do was curl up in bed with the blankets pulled around him. He felt Starsky move away and help him stand, holding him steady when he swayed. "I think...."

"Back to bed," Starsky finished. Hutch nodded, a slight, grateful grin creasing his face. He felt exhausted, completely empty, and boneless. So why did he feel so relieved?

The last thing he saw before closing his eyes was Starsky, bending over tucking him in, looking at him like... like Hutch didn't know what. It reminded him of the way he'd felt the first week at his aunt and uncle's, when his aunt treated him like cracked antique china. He shivered, and as he fell asleep felt a light touch on his forehead that faded into a dreamless sleep.

When he woke he pushed himself out of bed-- his body felt like it weighed a ton. All he wanted to do was lie back down and sleep forever. Unfortunately he knew if he did that, he'd do nothing *but* sleep for days, and he'd only feel worse each time he awoke. For the last three days he'd been sleeping ten to twelve hours a day, and he never seemed to feel rested. Grumbling silently and forcing his protesting body to move, he wandered into the living room where Starsky was sitting on the couch, facing away from him.

He came around the couch to sit beside him and stopped. Starsky looked up, startled. He'd been sitting still when Hutch walked up, but Hutch could see the paper in shredded piles at Starsky's feet. He stared at them for a moment, then looked up at his partner. "What... Starsk?"

Starsky gave a half-shrug, glancing down at the paper without a trace of guilt or embarrassment on his face. "Had to do somethin'."

"That bored?" Hutch tried to say it lightly, but he was too confused. Sleep-muddled and all, his brain couldn't come up with a reason his friend would sit and tear up old newspapers.

Shaking his head, Starsky sighed, and waved a hand vaguely over the paper. "I just..." Hutch heard the frustration, and felt a moment of anxiety. Starsky continued, "I didn't want to wake you by throwing things across the room. But god, Hutch... I am so angry... I just wanna rip that guy's throat out."

Hutch saw the way Starsky's hands clenched, and took a step back. "Starsk..." He heard his voice waver, and clamped his jaw shut. He couldn't say that he didn't approve, but it frightened him-- he knew Marcus wasn't the only one to blame. In a forced whisper he said, "I'm sorry... I know I should have told you..."

Starsky leapt to his feet, and stood inches away from Hutch, looking directly into his eyes. "Yes. You should have told me." His voice was tightly controlled. "If you had told me I coulda helped you and you wouldna gotten hurt. I am so mad at Delgado I could kill him because he did this to you. But I'm angry at you, too, partner. Because you didn't trust me."

Hutch felt his stomach drop, and all the blood rush to his legs. He wanted to run, he wanted to swear he hadn't done anything. He wanted to apologize, but Starsky kept telling him not to. Before he could say anything, Starsky took him by the arms, right above the casts. His grip was firm, but Hutch was surprised to find it wasn't threatening.

"Hutch," now his voice had softened, "I know you thought you had good reasons... and if-- when you wanna tell me what they are, what *all* of them are, I'll be here to listen to you. But Hutch... please don't ever lie to me again. Don't you know what that does to me? Knowing you'd let yourself be hurt, rather than tell me the truth about something? Hutch..." His voice broke, and Hutch saw the tears in his friend's eyes. "That's what makes me angry. That you'd let yourself be hurt...just because you're scared of me knowin' something. I don't like seeing you hurt, don't you understand? Makes me crazy, makes me wanna tear apart whoever did it. But when you help do it to yourself..." He shook his head helplessly.

Suddenly he let go of Hutch's arms, and took him in a hug. Hutch didn't know what to do, what to say. He moved his arms weakly, not sure if he wanted to return the hug or if he ought to. Muffled against his shoulder, he heard Starsky tell him, "Hutch please promise me you won't do this again. don't do anything like this ever again...even if you're scared to tell me what, just... tell me *something's* goin on so I can help you. Lie to me if you have to but don't just keep quiet and let..." Starsky fell silent.

Hutch bent his head down and said right in Starsky's ear, "I promise. I won't." A tightening of the hug was Starsky's response; now Hutch brought his arms up as best he could and held his friend. He smiled as it occurred to him -- he was most certainly awake, now.

They stood that way for a few moments, until Starsky stepped back. "You ready for your breakfast yet?"

"It's five o'clock, Starsk. I'd have thought it'd be time for dinner."

"Yeah, well, it is. But I'm making waffles anyway. Want one?" Starsky headed for the kitchen, his scowl fading and a more Starsky-like grin creeping in at the edges.

"Sounds good." Hutch followed him, not willing to let Starsky get too far away. As Starsky got the ingredients and bowl out, Hutch found himself asking in a tentative voice, "Would you make an omelet, too?" Starsky flashed him a smile, and grabbed the skillet as well. Hutch was glad Starsky didn't tease him about wanting one of the few things he'd ever admitted Starsky could cook better than he. He sat down at the table and sipped at the orange juice Starsky gave him.

That evening after Hutch went back to bed, Starsky went to clean up the pile of demolished newspaper he'd made. For a long time he simply stared at it, remembering the thoughts that had driven him to make such a large pile. His fingers trembled, as if ready to begin shredding anew; he stilled them, and sighed. Destroying newspaper wasn't going to solve anything-- even if it did make him feel better for a little while. He got on his knees and shoveled the bits into the trash can, wondering for a brief moment if he could set fire to the damn thing and watch it go up in smoke.

Hutch probably wouldn't appreciate it. Grinning slightly, Starsky thought that maybe Hutch wouldn't appreciate that he'd done it without him-- a good symbolic fire might do his partner a world of good. He'd keep it in mind, and mention it if it looked like Hutch needed something like that, some sorta release. But Hutch was always letting go of his anger, either talking about it for hours and then suddenly not at all, or doing some of that weird yoga stuff and coming out of it all smiles and calm.

Starsky didn't understand how it worked. He always yelled or glowered -- or destroyed things, when he was mad. But this crazy stuff seemed to work for his partner, so perhaps he wouldn't need to indulge in a small newspaper fire. Starsky smiled. He'd suggest it anyway. If Hutch said no, well, he could always have one for himself. He'd rip that page with Delgado's initials and phone number out of Hutch's little black book and use it to start the blaze.

Running a hand through his hair, he looked around the living room. Not much to clean up, but he didn't feel like turning in for the night. Glancing towards the bedroom, he saw his partner lying completely still. It probably wouldn't last, every night Hutch had nightmares, and Starsky would go in and wake him up or hold him until he quieted. Most of the time Hutch wouldn't tell him what he'd been dreaming, acting like it ought to be obvious. Starsky continued asking him, although he also kept telling him he didn't have to say a word until he was ready. He knew Hutch would tell him eventually, that he'd had good reason not to, so far. He'd *better* have good reason, Starsky corrected. If this was more of that misconceived 'trying to protect himself' silence he was gonna have to beat some sense....

Starsky swallowed that thought. It wasn't right, even if he knew he wouldn't ever hit Hutch. Didn't feel right to say it, or to think it. Falling back onto the couch, Starsky put his head in his hands. He wasn't used to this waiting patiently for something to happen. He needed to push, pull, or twist the world until things fell into place the way they were supposed to. He needed to run around, yelling, throwing things, he needed to force the world to be something it ought to be.

It wasn't fair-- he *knew* Hutch needed space and time to regain his balance and security. But it was getting difficult to provide that for him; he wanted to pick his partner up and shake him 'til he saw the truth and realized everything was going to be okay. He wanted to squeeze him so hard that all the pain ran out of him and there was nothing left but the warm, generous, happy man Starsky knew and loved. Why couldn't Hutch just *do* it? Why couldn't he just accept what Starsky kept telling him, and get over it?

He punched one of the throw pillows and spun around, propping his legs on the couch and staring up at the ceiling. He knew his wishes were unrealistic, he'd seen enough of pain and suffering to know it took a damn long time to recover from it. It didn't stop him from wishing, in fact it made him demand it all the harder-- why couldn't it just be over? He hated it when Hutch suffered, so much that he'd do anything to make it stop. Anything at all.... He found himself shaking, and he pressed his hands hard over his eyes.

Several minutes later he kicked the cushions beneath his feet, and stood up. This wasn't helping at all. Glaring, he went into the kitchen and tackled the small mess he'd left from lunch. He was careful not to slam dishes and doors so he wouldn't wake Hutch, instead scrubbing at the counters until they were spotless. When he found himself considering quite seriously scrubbing the floor, he gave himself a shake. Maybe he'd be better off running some errands; driving in LA traffic had also been a good way to redirect his anger on something that *deserved* all the cursing he could come up with.

He'd grabbed his keys and jacket when he heard Hutch moaning. Dropping the keys he hurried into the bedroom, to find Hutch caught in another nightmare. He was calling someone's name, asking them to please stop. Starsky noticed that it wasn't Marcus' name he was calling; he knelt by the bed and reached over.

"Hutch?" He laid a hand on Hutch's shoulder, lightly enough to not startle him. Hutch didn't react, still tossing his head and trying to move his arms. Starsky gripped a little harder, and spoke his name a bit louder.

"No, no, please don't..."

The pleading cut through Starsky like barbed wire, ripping his heart. Swallowing, he moved his face closer to Hutch's, and gave the shoulder a shake. "Hutch, it's okay... come on, wake up. It's all right... I'm here."

"Please... help me..."

"I'm here, Hutch. I'm right here." Starsky answered him, wondering what he could do-- sometimes he couldn't wake Hutch up from these dreams, and had to simply try his best to soothe him away from the nightmare. He leaned closer, and lay an arm across Hutch's chest. "Hutch, come on... wake up, will ya?"

Suddenly Hutch turned towards him, cast-covered arms reaching out. "Starsk?" His eyes were still closed, but Starsky smiled.

"That's right, Hutch. I'm here. I've got ya." He pulled himself closer, taking Hutch into his arms. "It's okay, now, Hutch. You're safe, you're right here with me... I'm gonna let anything hurt you, Hutch..." He put his face next to Hutch's, pressing their cheeks together, and closed his eyes, still whispering.

"Starsky...? Oh, god, Starsk..."

Starsky hugged his partner tighter as he woke up. He felt Hutch try to move closer. Without letting go, Starsky crawled onto the bed and lay down next to him, pulling him over and onto him. Hutch let his head drop onto Starsky's shoulder, and Starsky heard him try to muffle his crying. He brushed his hand up Hutch's back. "It's okay, Hutch, let it out... cry all you need to." He felt Hutch's entire body shake, and he moved his hand again, down his back, then continued the slow motion, up and down, as Hutch cried.

After a few minutes, Starsky realized that his rage had vanished and had been replaced by something else, something that made him content to hold his friend close. The weight of the long body on top of him felt light, as if holding it up was taking no effort at all. He turned his head, to look down at the blonde hair sticking every which way, and patted it down. Pressing close, he placed a gentle kiss on the rumpled head. He whispered something, not entirely sure what, only hoping his partner would be comforted.

Soon he heard a sniff, and knew this bout was over. He didn't move, not wanting to give Hutch reason to pull away from and off of him. He patted Hutch's head again. "Go back to sleep, Hutch."

"Like this?"

"Like this," Starsky answered, forgoing the explanations and assurances. For a moment he thought Hutch would ask him anyway, or move away regardless. Then he felt Hutch relax against him, and the deep breath told him Hutch was quickly following his advice. Soon his partner had fallen asleep, still cradled in Starsky's arms. Starsky smiled, and lay in bed listening to the traffic outside and watching the shadows and headlights flashing on the far wall.

Starsky gripped the wheel tighter and shouted a multi- syllabic rejoinder to the man who'd just cut him off. He'd kept his windows up for just this reason, so he could shout to his heart's content and not get into any serious verbal exchanges. This morning he'd finally come to a boiling point, frustrated by worry and anger; he'd left Hutch to get some shopping done, and the morning traffic was doing its best to provide him with a much needed outlet. He restrained himself from flipping off another driver and muttered under his breath.

Huggy had come over to Hutch's place, volunteering to stay while Starsky went to the grocery store and laundromat. Both he and Huggy had cheerfully and knowingly ignored Hutch when he'd objected to having a babysitter. Starsky had informed him that while his fingers might be reasonably mobile from the second knuckle down, that did not grant him sufficient mobility to pick up the phone, open the front door, or open the vial of aspirin. Hutch had countered that he just wouldn't need those thing while Starsky was gone, but he did stop objecting as loudly.

"You moron!!" Starsky was jolted out of his worried musings by another well-intentioned driver. This time he grinned; he was starting to feel better. If only he could solve all his problems so easily. He told himself that he wasn't going to start thinking about it again, not for at least half an hour. Glancing at his watch he nodded-- for half an hour he would think about anything but.

Four minutes later he realized that might not be possible. While thinking about Hutch meant worrying, not thinking about Hutch was proving to be perplexingly difficult. "This is insane," he muttered to himself, navigating traffic that was behaving for the moment. "It's not like I've never not thought about him before." He knew he'd been able to spend hours not thinking about his partner in the past, so why couldn't he do it now? There were lots of other things to occupy his mind-- the Darby case that had been handed over to Wilson and McCabe because he and Hutch.... Well then there was the fact that he owed his mother a phone call, because she'd called the other day wanting to know how Hutch.... What about his plans to go up to Channel Islands, the next time he and Hutch... Starsky sighed and shook his head. Wasn't there anything he could think about to distract himself from worrying about his partner?

As he pulled the Torino into a parking lot twenty minutes later he conceded defeat and worried. Whatever was bothering Hutch was serious, and it was a lot bigger than Delgado. He headed into the grocery store trying to figure out if he knew what it could be. Steering a cart through the aisles, he picked out groceries on autopilot, filling the cart with an assortment of his and his partner's usual selections. He concentrated on remembering everything he'd ever heard his partner say, that had anything to do with this situation. He thought back to all the things Hutch had said whenever the subject of gays had come up-- nothing there that spoke of anything more than an acceptance of the lifestyle. With a start he realized that Hutch had never even said anything that could be interpreted as a leading comment about his own orientation, trying to pave the way to coming out to his partner. For a moment he worried about Hutch's silence on the issue, but he realized it might be easily explained by his own silence on the issue. How would Hutch know that Starsky had finally come around to seeing that being gay was no big deal?

So maybe that wasn't it. He thought about other things, things which made his partner more upset than anything else. Idiots made him angry, the kind of idiot that hurt others without even caring. But more than that- those who hurt others and *did* care, who enjoyed what they did... those people made his partner furious. But that didn't make sense-- that was exactly what Delgado had been doing. Why didn't Hutch get mad enough to break the creep's arm the first time he ever tried anything?

Starsky realized he was standing motionless in the middle of the bread aisle. Blinking, he saw Hutch's brand of multi-grain on the shelf in front of him; he placed it in the cart and moved away. Why hadn't Hutch got rid of Delgado? Being afraid of being outed was one thing, but accepting something for himself that he never accepted happening to others didn't make sense. Hutch was afraid, he knew that... but of what?

Starsky glanced over with half a grin. "He ain't gonna--" Bemused green eyes met his stare and he fell silent.

Havershaw smiled. "You know, Starsky, you might as well say it. If I don't understand what you're talking about, I'll just write it down for after work and go ask Hutch to translate it."

With a short laugh, Starsky nodded. "Wouldn't work. He doesn't understand me either. He just knows how to fake it."

Duke Havershaw just grinned, and didn't say anything. Starsky was glad; he and Duke got along well enough, and the man was one of the most competent cops he'd ever worked with. But it was disconcerting to start to say something to his partner, and then discover it wasn't his partner he was talking to. He wondered if it meant he spent too much of his time with Hutch, that his instincts insisted he'd be there even when his brain knew he wasn't.

It was something he liked worrying about, though, not only as it was a welcome diversion to worrying about whatever it was Hutch wasn't telling him. But it was also a way of thinking about Hutch without driving himself nuts worrying about problems he didn't know enough about to try to solve. Starsky had returned to work three days ago, leaving Hutch on his own (and occasionally Huggy's) recognizance. Hutch still hadn't let on what was at the root of his nightmares, and Starsky had quite honestly shocked himself to discover he *still* wasn't getting too impatient. It was as if he knew there'd come the time, and until it did he had only to wait. It wasn't like he was going to lose something, before it happened.

Frowning, Starsky re-examined that thought. Lose something? What would he be losing? Well, nothing that was the point. That's why he wasn't frantic, just concerned. So why had he thought it that way? What did he think he might have lost? How would he have lost it? Maybe if Hutch hadn't told him about Delgado? That seemed right... if Hutch hadn't told him about his psychotic boyfriend, he'd have lost... what?

He slammed the heel of his hand against the steering wheel. He hadn't a clue. He ignored Duke's glance, not about to try and explain what he was thinking about. He figured that Duke wasn't wondering anymore, anyhow; Starsky had spent a better part of each shift lost in thought. Worrying about losing his partner.

Starsky sat up suddenly. Losing his partner? Where had *that* come from?

"See something?"

"Huh? Oh, uh no... just... just thinking."

"Had a revelation, did you?" Havershaw sounded amused, and not surprised. After a moment's silence he added, "It's about time."

Slowly Starsky looked over. "What d'ya mean?"

"It's been three days, Starsky. It's about time you made some headway on... whatever it is that's been worrying you."

It was obvious from the tone of his voice, that Duke understood what -- or at least whom -- Starsky had been worrying about. And Starsky suddenly understood that Duke had been a lot more patient than he'd had the right to expect. He grinned. "Been a little distracted."

"Yeah, I noticed." He didn't sound upset. "So did it help?"

"Huh? Did what help?"

"The revelation. Did it help?"

"Oh... I dunno..." he glared at Duke, knowing the other man would know he wasn't serious. "You interrupted me before I could find out."

Duke laughed, and turned his attention back to the street. Starsky watched the streets as well, but let most of his mind return to his earlier thoughts. Losing his partner... how had he come across that one?

He retraced his train of thought, and discovered a fear he hadn't noticed before. The impulse he hadn't examined before, when he'd considered burning the page with Delgado's phone number on it-- the image he'd had was of the entire book, thrown on the flames. What would that accomplish? Did he think that if Hutch couldn't call any of his ex- or potential boyfriends, that he'd solve the problem? Did he wish Hutch weren't gay?

He mulled that one over for awhile. He remembered the shock and denial he'd felt when John had been killed and subsequently outed and it didn't feel the same. He'd had a lot of thinking to do after that one, and had been pleased to finally discover that what had bothered him most was the lying, not John's being gay. While he felt the same anger at Hutch for his silence, that didn't explain his desire to rip apart that little black book and burn the scraps to ash.

He felt the tension a split second before Duke spoke. "There he is."

Starsky's thoughts of Hutch vanished as he caught sight of the man they'd been asked to watch out for. Danny Knuteson, wanted for questioning in a string of arsons-- the last one of which resulted in the death of two persons. Starsky steered his car towards the curb, and Duke hopped out, fifty yards down from where Knuteson was walking. Starsky pulled slowly away, edging the car forward to get ahead of the man before he noticed anything amiss.

The man looked more like an accountant than an arsonist, but Starsky knew enough to ignore appearances. Too many grandmas and mousy looking geeks who turned out to be criminal masterminds had convinced him that anyone could potentially be suspected. He pulled to a stop several yards ahead of Knuteson, getting out just as Duke stepped up behind him. The little man didn't appear to notice, just as if he hadn't a reason in the world to expect strangers hovering about waiting to pick him up.

That illusion was shattered when Duke said his name. The guilty start, though quickly masked, was all Starsky needed. They'd found their man- or somebody's. Arsonist or no, this guy had done something wrong. Starsky walked over quickly, giving his partner support, as he lead the now- protesting man to the car. Duke's assurances that they just wanted to ask him some questions weren't faring well, Knuteson was demanding to see his lawyer before he'd set foot inside Starsky's car.

"Well, we'll be sure and give him a call, won't we?" Starsky grinned. All in a day's work.

Hutch stared at the walls. He was incredibly bored, and he knew it was only because he was working so hard not to think that he didn't have the energy left over to do anything else. Looking at the clock, he saw that Starsky was due home soon, barring any of the usual delays. He hoped tonight weren't usual; having Starsky around made it easier to relax, and easier not to think.

At first he'd been glad Starsky had returned to work so soon. He'd felt guilty about taking his partner's vacation time to tend to him, even though he'd needed the help badly. It wasn't that he thought Starsky would begrudge him the time, he just felt so guilty about getting into the mess in the first place, that everything else weighed down on that guilt and made it stronger. But now he realized that he dreaded spending the day alone, without his partner. There wasn't a lot he could do during the day, although he'd found that when lying on the couch he could prop open a hardback book and read. It could have been a great chance to catch up on all the reading and rereading he'd wanted to do, and Huggy had cheerfully gone to the library for him and returned with a huge stack.

But reading distracted that part of his mind which kept him from thinking, and after losing track of the text four times in two paragraphs he knew he was wasting his time. What he really wanted was someone to talk to -- rather, he wanted Starsky to talk to. He knew that given enough time, he could get them into the kind of conversation where he could say the things he knew Starsky was waiting to hear. He knew he had to tell Starsky, and part of him badly wanted to tell it and get it over with-- that was more guilt, for not saying anything, for not trusting Starsky with the truth. The rest of him just wanted to curl up in Starsky's arms and talk about safe, normal, easy things and let the world go away. Scared as he was, he was afraid that the longer he waited, the easier it would be never to say a word about it at all. He knew he owed Starsky more than that.

But either way, it meant wanting Starsky here, not out there. He was about to pick up a book on Medieval Europe and at least try to read, when the door opened and a most welcome voice called hello.

Starsky was startled for a moment by the enormity of the relieved grin which greeted him; he was always glad to see his partner himself, but this looked like the only good thing to happen to Hutch all day was Starsky's coming home. He smiled back, and sat down on the coffee table, checking the spine of the book laying in Hutch's lap. He smirked. "You're gonna hurt yourself reading that stuff. Fills your brain up 'til you can't think anymore."

Hutch grinned, and Starsky realized that that was exactly why Hutch had been reading. He felt bad for saying it-- if Hutch were trying so hard not to think, it wouldn't help for him to start going on about it. Hutch didn't seem to mind very much, he was still smiling and watching Starsky. "Huggy picked it out for me. I just gave him a list of topics, didn't really care which titles he got."

"He took you to the library? Huh, didn't realise Hug knew where the library was." Hutch didn't react to the friendly dig the way he expected; instead of laughing or defending their friend, he flinched and glanced away. "What' s wrong?"

"Nothing, he..." Hutch looked at him then sighed. "He just didn't take me, I sent him."

Starsky favoured his friend with a furled brow and his best 'what the heck are you talking about' look. "So?"

Hutch pushed the book away abruptly. "Nothing, Starsk. So how'd it go with Havershaw? You driving him nuts yet?" The inquiry sounded flat to Starsky's ears, but he understood completely. This was Hutch's attempt to talk about anything which didn't remind him of what had happened. For a moment he felt like pushing Hutch, asking him if he'd talk about it. Then he just nodded.

"Or he's driving me nuts, I can't tell which. We found Knuteson, though."

"You did? Great-- is he the one?"

Starsky sighed. "I don't know. Everything says he is, except when we hauled him in he turned out to have an alibi. Four witnesses, three of whom don't even know him-- they got no reason to lie for him."

Hutch was sitting up now, alert and concentrating just as if he were on the case too. Starsky felt a bit of pride at that, and didn't stop to wonder why. "You're sure they weren't paid off? Or scared off?"

"I'm sure," he let the exasperation show. They'd covered all the obvious answers, and looked at all the unobvious ones as well. "We even checked to see if Knuteson had a twin brother, but no go. The evidence we got pointing to Knuteson as the arsonist is pretty good, but not when compared to four eyewitnesses."

"They're sure about the time they saw him? What made them remember him, anyway?"

Starsky nodded to the first question, then answered, "They were at this club some amateur night thing. Wasn't much of a crowd- about twelve people, only the four I mentioned actually saw Knuteson. Anyway, the show started at seven thirty, and right before that Knuteson and his friend Carl Amerrway were seated at a front table-- Amerrway knocked into a waitress, broke a bunch of glasses. It got cleaned up, and they sat there through the show, until nine o'clock. And the fire was started between eight and nine, because the night watchman was in the other building during that time."

He watched his partner lean back, thinking things through. Starsky was glad to talk this over with him-- not just out of pity to give the man something to distract him, but because the case had he and Havershaw stumped, and anyone's help would be appreciated. Besides, his partner had a flair for figuring these things out. He waited until Hutch looked at him again. "There's no way he could have slipped out of the club?"

"It's on the other side of town-- it'd have taken him an hour just to get there, not to mention getting back. He was seen before, during, and after the show."

"And the time of the fire is definite-- no delay timer, anything like that?"

"Nope. Fire was started by a burning rag thrown down from the skylight. Had to be somebody standing there to let it go."

"No way that could have been rigged?"

Patiently, Starsky gave the forensics team's report that had answered that same question when he'd asked it. "There was no evidence of the kind of contraption necessary-- and there wasn't time to break it down and get it outta there before the roof caught on fire."

"The tape couldn't have been doctored?"

"Nope. It shows Knuteson in the building at 7:48 pm. The picture- even though kinda dark and kinda fuzzy, was identified by his boss, his co-workers, and a neighbor. And the night watchman saw him at 6:20, in the parking lot, and can vouch for it not being someone made-up to look like Knuteson."

"How can he be sure?"

Starsky grinned. "He's a member of the Invisible Theatre company; he's been doing theatre make-up for ten years. No make-up, no face mask."

"Huh... maybe the camera's clock was... no, he had to be there between eight and nine, you said."

"Yup. The guy on the tape is most likely Knuteson. But the guy at the club is definitely Knuteson. So, if it were you, how would you do it?"

Hutch stared up at the ceiling. "Either the man the night watchman saw at 6:20 was Knuteson, and the man on the tape wasn't-- *he* could have been in make-up or a mask, or there's two of them."

"Yeah, we figure it's the first one. Only that leaves us nowhere, no leads, no clues, nothing. It can't be the second one. No brothers, and his sister is in New Jersey... and looks nothing like him. Half a foot shorter and red hair."


"Huh?" Starsky sat up at the gleam forming in Hutch's eye.

"Well, sometimes cousins look an awful lot alike. I remember Joey and his cousin Mark were mistaken for brothers all the time."

"Who's Joey and Mark?"

"Kids I knew at summer camp. They did look alike... and if you didn't know them, and saw one expecting the other it'd be really easy to make a mistake."

Starsky jumped up and grabbed Hutch's face, hands on his cheeks. "You're beautiful." He jumped over Hutch's legs and got the phone; a minute later he was talking to Daisy down in Records. "I need to know if Knuteson has any cousins, and I'll need pictures, home addresses, the works. Thanks." He turned back to Hutch, who was looking quite pleased with himself.

"What would you do without me, huh Starsk?"

Starsky smiled. "I'd make Havershaw do all the work."

Knuteson turned out to have a cousin, conveniently visiting LA, who just happened to resemble his cousin closely enough that photos of the two were nearly indistinguishable. Starsky and Havershaw were able to arrest both, and Dobey congratulated them on a job well done. He called Hutch and gave him congratulations as well, and told him that if he insisted on returning to work so soon he'd be happy to send over the paperwork. Hutch had laughed and pointed out that the casts restricted him to doing the mental work, and nothing else.

Starsky had tried to invite Hutch to The Pits for a celebratory drink, and was surprised when the offer was refused.

"You must be going stir crazy, been in here for nearly two weeks. Don't you need any fresh air?"

Hutch barely glanced at him. "I can get fresh air on the porch."

Starsky walked over to his partner, standing nervously near the porch doors. "Hutch? What's wrong?" He remembered suddenly what Hutch had said earlier about sending Huggy to the library for him. He stood in front of Hutch, closely, but not yet reaching out to touch him. "Hutch? You been out of your apartment since you got back?" From the way Hutch refused to look at him, Starsky guessed the answer. He reached over and rubbed gently along his arm, above the cast. "You scared of seeing Marcus?"

Hutch shook his head quickly. "He's in jail."

"Yeah, I know. So what *are* you afraid of?"

He watched as Hutch squeezed his eyes closed, as if fighting against answering. In a trembling voice he finally said, "I'm afraid everyone's going to know."

Starsky hadn't expected that. "Know what? That you got beat up? Tell 'em it was a skiing accident. They won't know the difference."

"No..." Hutch shook his head again, slowly, eyes still shut. "I don't... I feel like it's written in big letters, right across my forehead, and anyone who looks at me can tell just exactly what happened and why...."

"Oh, Hutch..." Starsky leaned forward, resting his forehead against his partners. "No one can tell. No one can see anything." He didn't understand the fear, but he knew Hutch was serious. "It'll be okay."

"They'll know." He could barely hear the whisper, but felt the warm breath on his face.

"How could they tell?" He tried to be reasonable. His partner was always the logical one, and if faced with a rational argument couldn't... shouldn't maintain his fear.

"Marcus did."

Starsky felt something run down his spine, icicles forming in his nerves. He kept his voice soft. "What did he know?"

"That I deser--" Hutch opened his eyes, and Starsky saw the panicked fear fading. A bit louder, Hutch started again. "I felt like I deserved what he did. Like he knew I deserved it... and however he could tell, that's how everyone on the street will know."

"You didn't--! Hutch, you don't deserve--"

"I know... but what I know and what I feel... I'm scared, Starsk. I can't help it. I'm scared."

Starsky wrapped his arms around his partner and pulled him into an embrace. He could feel tiny shivers as Hutch shook, from the fear or the force of actually telling something he obviously didn't want to say aloud. He spoke to calm his partner down. "It's okay, Hutch. It's all right to be scared. But I'm here and I'm gonna protect you and help you. Nobody's gonna hurt you while I'm around, you here me? Nobody... you're gonna be okay, you're gonna be fine... you don't deserve someone beating you up, Hutch. What you deserve is candle-lit dinners and soft music and flowers and slow dancing and sweet nothings whispered in your ear. gentle loving and kisses good morning. Not being hit, not being hurt, not even being yelled at even if you do something stupid. You deserve all the best things, Hutch, and none of the bad." Starsky had closed his eyes partway through his speech, thinking of nothing but the man trembling in his arms. He deserved those things, and if no one else was going to do it properly he would. He smiled at the thought of giving Hutch what he really deserved.

For several minutes neither said a word, Hutch standing in Starsky's arms, Starsky only realizing after the fact that he'd very gently begun to sway back and forth, rocking his partner. Finally Hutch lifted his head and look at him, eyes wet with as yet unshed tears. Starsky brought his hand up, as if to brush those tears away, and leaned forward, kissing Hutch on the cheek.

"What was that for?" The stammered whisper wasn't a surprise.

Starsky smiled. "You looked like you need it. And I love you."

As if the words defeated him, Hutch hung his head. "I haven't told you... I have to tell you why I thought... why I let Marcus do those things. Why it was so easy to let him..."

"Come on, let's sit down." Starsky led them to the couch. Hutch said noting until both were settled, sitting close but not touching. The distance, he knew, would give Hutch the illusion of protection. Illusion because he didn't need it with Starsky, but for now he couldn't see that. Or perhaps he did, and it simply made it easier.

Softly at first, as if the words were brand new, Hutch began explaining. "When I was eleven years old, I played baseball. My parents were never free to pick me up after practise, so my coach gave me a ride home. Twice a week. My parents were... real glad to let him. Saved them the time, let me play baseball... At first, that's all there was too it."

Starsky knew he'd heard this before. From the runaways they picked up, young hookers left with nowhere to go but the street, junkies and thieves who all had the same story to tell. Only the details ever changed, and Starsky knew he just had to wait now for Hutch's. He curbed the impulse to reach out and take Hutch into his arms; now was not the time for interruptions. He said nothing-- but it was hard, hearing these words from Hutch. Knowing what they were going to mean.

Hutch kept talking, words coming faster and stronger, as if they had somehow become easier to say. Starsky knew better. "After a few weeks, things changed. I found out later he'd called my folks and told them practise time had changed to later, so they wouldn't expect me until an hour later. But practise ended at its regular time and he... instead took me to his house." At that Hutch fell silent, looking at the floor.

Carefully, Starsky placed one hand on Hutch's shoulder. "What'd he do?"

"He... nothing really. He took pictures. I... had no idea why, didn't know what.... It wasn't long before he was found out, though. Something-- my parents talked with other parents, found out the practise time hadn't changed. They... I don't know what happened, but all of a sudden everyone knew what was going on. He. was arrested and I..." His voice broke, and each word came haltingly, broken, forced out past years of aching, and denying. "I was sent to live with my aunt and uncle. Sent off where no one knew what I'd done. My parents... were furious with me. Couldn't stand... having me around anymore."

"Oh god," Starsky pulled Hutch to him, holding him tightly. Ripping Delgado's throat out wasn't enough anymore. He considered plane tickets to Minnesota and wondered how he'd find that coach after all these years. "Hutch it wasn't your fault. You were just a kid-- it wasn't your fault."

Muffled against his shirt, he heard Hutch answering, "I know... I... my aunt and uncle put me in therapy for a couple years. I got... I learned it wasn't my fault and that my parents... thought they'd done what was best, sending me away. But I..." he pushed himself away from Starsky, and though he looked like hell his voice was suddenly calmer. "Sometimes I still feel like it was. That I made it happen, that I was wrong and that I deserved to be sent away, beaten and... my father hit me when he found out. It was the only time he'd ever hit me, and he hit me four times before he stopped. My mother wrote me later and said he was sorry. But he never... I never spoke with either of them about it again.

"No matter how much I think it wasn't my fault, that I don't deserve it, I still... sometimes I can't believe it. Sometimes... when I see the same thing happening to some kid and I know what's going to happen when she gets home and I can't say anything, and all I...." He shook his head, unable to say any more.

Pulling him gently into his arms, Starsky held him, one arm supporting him in front, the other brushing through his hair, patting his back. He knew he didn't have to say anything, he understood how demons you thought you'd banished could rise up and strangle you before you had any idea what was going on.

When he felt Hutch move, he slightly loosened his hold. Hutch pushed himself away, trying to wipe his face. Starsky pulled out his handkerchief and wiped his nose and cheeks. "Feel better?"

"I haven't ever told anyone... I don't know what I feel."

"Exhausted, I bet." Hutch nodded wearily. "Come on, let me put you to bed."

Starsky started to stand up, and stopped as Hutch looked over at him. The expression on his friend's face was hard to describe, but it made Starsky want to hold him close all over again. "You don't... it doesn't... it doesn't bother you, what happened?"

"Bother me?" Starsky was incredulous. "Hutch, it makes me want to go find that guy and rip him apart. Of *course* it bothers me! I told you already, the thought of anyone hurting you makes me crazy! What it *doesn't* do is change how I feel about you. I know it wasn't your fault, I know it doesn't change who you are-- I'm not going to get rid of you because someone hurt you like that. Not your coach, not Delgado, not anyone. No one can make me leave you." As Hutch's expression gave way to overwhelmed shock, he added, "I told you I love you. This isn't going to change that at all. If anything, I love you more for trusting me so much."

Hutch didn't say anything. From the glazed look in his eyes Starsky knew his partner had reached the end of his tether for the night; he pulled him in for another hug, then tugged gently until they were both standing. He had to hold a good bit of Hutch's weight, as he steered him towards the bed. Undressing him was a quick affair, two weeks of practise making it easy. Hutch let himself be put to bed without a murmur, letting Starsky settle in beside him when the lights were turned off. Starsky stared at his partner as his eyes adjusted to the darkness dimmed by lights streaming in through the shutters, until he could see the face as it finally began to relax.

He reached over and stroked one cheek, wanting to remove the rest of the fear he could still see lining Hutch's face. Hutch opened his eyes and looked at him, brow furling then clearing quickly. "You really meant it, didn't you?" His words were quiet, but not hesitant.

"Of course I did." He paused. "'Bout what?"

"About loving me."

Starsky grinned. "Of course I did. Would I lie to you about a thing like that? You're my best friend. Who else could I love if not you?"

"But you..." Hutch stammered, stopped, then tried again. "But you mean... you love me."

Starsky looked down at him, grin softening into a smile. "What else would I mean?" He continued stroking Hutch's face.

"I...." Hutch looked lost, confused, then he shook his head. "I want to go to sleep."

"Okay. Go to sleep."

"I... you'll be here in the morning?"

"I'll be here all night, unless you kick me outta bed."

"Oh." Hutch stared at him a while longer, then nodded. He closed his eyes. Starsky waited a moment longer, then moved to lay down. Hutch's voice stopped him. "I love you too, Starsk." The words sounded forced, as if the fears so recently eased were back in strength.

Starsky leaned over and kissed him again, on the forehead, then again on the cheek. "Go to sleep, Hutch." He put one arm across Hutch's chest, holding him close, and lay awake to feel as Hutch's body gradually relaxed again. He felt more than heard the sigh right before his partner drifted off to sleep; only then did he let his own eyes close.

Hutch woke up to find himself held loosely in Starsky's embrace. That didn't surprise him, he'd woken up here several times in the past several days. What did surprise him was how good he felt. He'd expected to be scared-- now that the truth was out there was so much chance of losing everything, his partner's respect, his own courage to fight back again, the fears he had. Instead he felt warm and relaxed, as if waiting would only bring things he could deal with.

He smiled involuntarily when a nose brushed against his cheek.

"You're awake!" A happy voice sounded near his ear.

"What did you expect? It's morning, isn't it?" He opened his eyes and found Starsky, mere inches away from him. He was struck by the curiosity of what it might be like to do this again. It was *nice* waking up with Starsky.

"I expected you'd be dead to the world until noontime. It's how long you've been sleeping all week."

Hutch smiled at the casual tease, knowing the concern hidden behind it. "I feel a lot better now."

"Not scared?" Starsky asked quietly.

"Not... not as much."

"Good." Again that cheery grin plastered itself all over Starsky's face. Hutch enjoying watching his partner's entire body transform into happiness, with one cheery grin. He couldn't help but smile back. "You want breakfast?"


"Oh. S'too bad, I was gonna make my famous Starsk- erino omelettos. You were gonna be in for a real treat." Hutch just looked at him, and saw Starsky's cheer fall away. "You okay?"

Hutch nodded. "Yeah. I'm just..."

Starsky pulled him close again. "I know. It's okay... you'll see, you gotta trust me. Everything's gonna be okay."

Closing his eyes, Hutch realized he was going to start crying again. That, or start kissing Starsky. He trembled, and felt Starsky' hands rubbing his sides in response. He was whispering again, reassurances that felt good, felt almost true. He turned his head towards Starsky as if seeking him out; found his mouth near a cheek and kissed it, he moved slightly sideways and found his mouth and kissed that as well. He kissed him urgently for several seconds, then pulled away suddenly.

"Oh, christ, Starsk, I'm sorry."

Starsky gave him a confused look. "What for?" He sounded sincere.

"For... for kissing you."

"Yeah? Seems to me like I started it."

"You?" Hutch shook his head, remembering the night before. "That wasn't..."

"Wasn't it?"

Hutch simply stared at him.

Starsky didn't quite believe he was hearing what he was saying. He knew that he often acted before thinking, especially when his partner-- or his libido, was involved. But the two together, apparently, and wham. All he *did* know was that the unexpected kiss felt a hell of a lot better than anything he'd felt before, chaste as it had been with lips closed, because he knew who it was lying beside him. The love he'd professed so easily filled him and he wanted to do anything that meant loving Hutch. Even *loving* him.

It wasn't so much of a shock as he might have expected, although when he considered it later he decided that was because he'd simply been overwhelmed. He knew he loved Hutch, that had never been the issue. But to feel what he was feeling... he leaned over and returned the kiss. For a moment there was no response, then he felt Hutch pressing his mouth against his, tentatively. Starsky let himself go, moving on autopilot, and opened his mouth, licking Hutch's lower lip.

Hutch groaned, and tried to push himself closer. Starsky licked again, and this time Hutch opened his mouth and Starsky discovered that sometimes, morning breath was no big deal at all. He felt his body shake, and he broke the kiss, leaning up on one elbow. Hutch looked dazed, extraordinary, happy and frustrated.

"You're beautiful. Why didn't you tell me you could kiss like that?"

Hutch opened one eye. "I did. I remember... we were at the academy and I told you--" He sounded oddly at ease. Starsky would have expected a lot more breast-beating. But perhaps there had been enough of that lately. The irony wasn't lost on him-- emotional exhaustion could make a person quite calm and accepting. He decided to be patient.

"That doesn't count."

"Why not?"

"Because I didn't believe you." Starsky kissed him again. He was amazed at how easily a sensation could convince him that all was right with the world.



"Am I ready for this?" The voice shook slightly.

Silence. Then, "I dunno. Maybe not, all things considered."

Silence. "Starsky?" Shaking and quiet.

"Yeah?" Easy.

"Is that okay?"

"Course it's okay. I can wait for you. Been here for years already, ain't I?"

"You aren't just... doing this to make me feel better?"

"No. I'm doing it because I love you."

"But you're not..."

"You've converted me."

Silence. "I didn't mean to."

A tender laugh. "Doesn't matter."

"Is that okay?"

"I love you, Hutch. 'Course it's okay."

Silence, waiting. "Tomorrow."

"I can wait, Hutch. Whenever you're ready."

"I love you too."

"Go back to sleep, Hutch."