When Hutch opened his eyes, he saw the end credits of some New York morning news show scrolling across the screen. Realizing he must have dozed off, he glanced over at the clock. 8:58. His last recollection was seeing the dawn begin to break in the sky outside the hotel room window. Looking down, he noted that Starsky was still sleeping peacefully in his arms. In fact, he had barely moved an inch from the position he had fallen asleep in.

The kinks in Hutch's back screamed to be stretched out, but he chose not to shift position either, fearful that he might disturb his partner's much needed rest. Instead, he lay still, contenting himself as he had for most of the night, with keeping a protective watch over his sleeping friend.

Running the events of the past few days through his mind, Hutch wondered for the hundredth time whether Starsky was going to be all right. Yesterday had been like a nightmare, watching helplessly as the manifestation of his partners grief and pain came pouring out, first in that frightening anxiety attack and later in the agonized sobs that wracked his entire body.

But at least it came out. Surely that was a good sign. For days Starsky had walked around like a tightly packaged bomb that wouldn't allow itself to explode. This unburdening, though difficult, had to be a step in the right direction.

Hutch looked down at the face that was sleeping so serenely now. A feeling came over him then that he couldn't quite discern. There was just something about the trust that his partner always placed in him. Whether he was shot up with bullets or pumped full of poison...or grieving the unending losses that seemed to plague him...that trust never wavered. It was a humbling feeling to know that somebody could depend on you so completely. No one else in Hutch's entire life ever had. And it was not something he took lightly. He strove constantly to live up to that trust...to not let his partner down in the way he had let down everything else in his life...including himself.

For Starsky, he could always manage to find a way to be better than he thought he could be. He wasn't sure how yet, but he was determined to find a way to help get his partner through this latest adversity. Stroking the back of his hand against the tear blotched cheek, he whispered softly to the sleeping form.

"You're going to be all right, Starsk. I promise."

He continued the quiet stroking for several minutes until he heard the knock at the door.

~~~~~~~

Huggy glanced with concern at the wrinkled, disheveled blonde who answered the door.

"Rough night, huh?"

"Yeah, but we got through it. Come on in Hug."

Huggy Bear entered the room and looked over towards Starsky's sleeping form. Even in sleep, the face reflected the toll of a difficult emotional battle.

"How is he?"

Hutch sighed as he looked with concern towards his partner. "I don't know. It got pretty bad there for a while. But at least he's finally getting some rest. He slept through most of the night."

"For which the same can't be said of you my friend."

Hutch shrugged, a weariness to his posture that was more emotional than physical.

"I dozed off a few times. I'm all right"

"Couldn't stop worrying about him, huh," Huggy said knowingly. "Had to keep watch...make sure he was all right."

A faint smile crossed Hutch's lips as he eyed his friend. "Yeah, something like that."

"Say no more. Who knows you two better than me?"

Huggy's mind briefly flashed back to a time in a room over his old place. It was Starsky who went without sleep then as he kept a protective vigil over his de-toxing partner. There had been many such times over the years, the roles reversing as needed. Cut one and the other bleeds. And so it had always been.

"Listen, Dobey's big old stomach's got to growling something fierce so we were gonna go out and grab some breakfast. Should I bring something back for you boys?"

"Yeah, that would be great, Huggy. I'm hoping I can get him to eat today...start building back his strength."

"Anything in particular you want?"

"I don't know. Bring a few things. Maybe if there's enough variety we can find something he can stomach."

"One variety breakfast comin' up," Huggy smiled. "Oh, by the way, after breakfast we were gonna go by and pay our respects at the Shiva. You think you'll be heading over there later?"

Hutch shrugged. "I don't know. I'll play it by ear I guess. Whatever he's up to."

"Was it a bad scene with the family yesterday after we left?"

The look that crossed Hutch's face resembled that of a man who had barely escaped a firing squad. The response, though evasive, was said in a tight-lipped manner that seemed to be struggling to remain in control.

"It wasn't pleasant." Hutch looked toward his sleeping partner and sighed. "They just don't get it Hug. I don't think they have any idea what he's going through...how much this is all affecting him, especially so soon after Nick. I can't wait until we can just go home and start putting all this behind us."

"And that's going to solve it, huh...going home?" Huggy tried to keep the tone of the question neutral but he couldn't help but be concerned. He wondered if it wasn't Hutch who couldn't see the full implications of the situation.

Before the conversation could proceed any further, however, they were interrupted by the sound of low, distressed moans from the bed. Hutch moved immediately to his partner who had begun to thrash about in a restless nightmare. He sat down on the edge of the bed, pulling Starsky's head over towards his lap.

"It's all right. I'm right here. Take it easy."

The still sleeping man clutched an arm around Hutch's thigh as the blonde stroked his hand up and down the sweat dampened back. Hutch continued to speak soothingly until the moans slowly subsided and the sleep was once again peaceful. Hutch looked up at Huggy then with a look that revealed the inner turmoil.

"He's in so much pain, Hug. I wish there was more that I could do for him."

"I think you do plenty," Huggy reassured. This brief scene had served to remind Huggy of the strength of the bond these two shared...a bond that had seen them through many dark times. Maybe he had been wrong to harbor so many doubts before. Maybe once they did get home things would get back to normal. Maybe.

~~~~~~~

Hutch hoisted himself atop the hood of his most recent 'classic' Ford and gazed around the near empty parking lot. There were only three other vehicles parked outside of Pappy's Dogs and Fixins', so the line inside couldn't be very long. Starsky would probably only be a few minutes. Squinting his eyes against the bright sunshine, Hutch realized that even after all these years, the contrast in temperature between LA and Duluth still unbalanced him at times. On a mid-January afternoon like this, the only way he could be sitting on top of his car in Duluth would be if he had dug it out from under 5 feet of snow first. And even then, he would have to be dressed in about six layers of clothes to withstand the wind chill.

Hutch's musings were interrupted by a heavy set, balding man who exited from Pappy's carrying a large brown bag. Hutch watched as he got into the red Chevy that was parked near the entrance and drove off. It was only a few minutes after that when his partner emerged carrying a smaller version of the same brown bag with the green Pappy's lettering.

As Starsky made his way across the parking lot, Hutch's eyes drew to the lithe frame. He was certain Starsky had dropped more weight. How could he not? In the three months since they had returned from New York, Starsky's appetite had been minimal at best. Hutch had actually been surprised when Starsky suggested they come here for lunch...surprised and pleased. So pleased, in fact, that he made no mention of the perpetual case of indigestion that lunch from Pappy's always left him with.

"So how is old Pappy?" Hutch asked as Starsky got beside the car. "Last I heard, he was getting ready to close down and sell in order to afford those alimony payments to wife number 3."

"Well, fortunately he just married wife number 4," Starsky responded as he opened the car door, "and she's got quite a nest egg."

"Really?" Hutch pondered as he slid down from the hood and opened the driver's side door. "Family money?"

"Kinda," Starsky grumbled, sliding into the seat. "It seems she made her money in the family business...mom and grandma passed on the legacy. The women in her family have an entire franchise down in the red-light district."

Starsky removed a can of soda and a small, white wrapped object from the bag before passing it to Hutch. Hutch looked distastefully at the bag in his hand as he leaned it against the steering wheel.

"Uh, Starsk, wife number 4...she doesn't help out in the kitchen, does she?"

"Nah. You know how Pappy is about his secret recipes."

Hutch reached into the bag and pulled out a container of chili. As he lifted the lid, a familiar odor assaulted his senses.

"Yeah. Wouldn't want those secret recipes to get out," Hutch remarked dryly. "Restaurants all over town might start serving food with that special Pappy flavoring." Hutch looked over at his partner eyeing the simple, plain hot dog that Starsky had unwrapped. "What happened to your usual?" Starsky never came here without ordering the Pappy Spectacular...a foot-long dog heaped nearly three inches high with toppings that Hutch didn't even want to know the names of.

Starsky shrugged quietly as he popped open his soda. "Just not in the mood I guess." He took a small bite out of the naked hot dog and then washed it down with a long sip of soda. The ensuing silence indicated he had nothing more to say on the subject.

Hutch lifted a plastic spoon out of the bag and began to poke at the powerfully smelling chili while his mind filled with thoughts of his partner. More and more lately, he found himself at a loss for words. He felt like he never knew what to say and since Starsky didn't say much of anything, the silences between them had steadily grown. As he snuck a quick glance at his partner who was eating in silence beside him, Hutch longed for the days when an afternoon meal signaled the start of Starsky's ceaseless babble about some tabloid discovery or some harebrained money-making scheme.

Hutch wasn't even sure if Starsky read the tabloids anymore. He wasn't sure if he did much of anything beyond work. As far as Hutch could see, he worked and he went home. In the beginning, Hutch left it alone, believing Starsky just needed some time to come to terms with his grief. When weeks passed without change, he tried to push a little...look for ways to persuade his partner to go out for some dinner or a ballgame or something social, even try to get him to talk about what was going on inside of him. But those attempts resulted in Starsky drawing more deeply inside himself. Days of silence in the car and at the station would follow Hutch's most earnest attempts to cajole his partner from his withdrawn state. Now, he just walked on egg shells...talking only when Starsky seemed responsive and backing off when the walls shot up again.

It was all so frustrating. Even in New York, when Starsky was sick with grief and exhaustion, he was still Starsky, and Hutch felt connected to him. After that night when Starsky broke down and allowed himself to express some of the abundance of pain he was carrying, Hutch had truly believed that things were going to be OK. They spent the next several days at the Shiva and Starsky seemed in control He handled his family and his obligations smoothly and even began to start eating again.

But the person who returned to LA with him after the family mourning period ended slowly began to resemble a stranger to Hutch. The changes weren't drastic...maybe they were even intangible to the untrained observer...but they were there. Little things...a different slant to the walk...joke opportunities that went by without being pounced upon...favorite clothes no longer worn...lack of obsession over a small knock in the engine...hundreds of little things in the past three months. The most glaring, of course, was when Christmas came and went without so much as a carol or a sprig of mistletoe. Hutch even roused himself from his own Scrooge-like tendencies to try to re-kindle the spirit of Christmas in his partner, but was met with moody disinterest.

"Chili that bad?"

Hutch snapped back from his reverie and realized he had been staring blankly into the untouched chili container. He looked at Starsky who had finished his hot dog and was now swallowing down a long gulp of soda.

"No, it's not bad...I just..." Hutch began and then paused. After a moment he continued. "I guess I just wasn't as hungry as I thought I was." He picked the top of the container out of the bag and replaced it. "I'll just re-heat it and have it later." Hutch placed the uneaten chili back into the bag and tossed it into the back seat.

"I'm sorry, Hutch."

The somber tone caught him off guard and Hutch looked questioningly into the face of his partner.

"For what?"

"I know you don't care much for the food here," Starsky began in a voice that sounded much too serious to be merely about lunch. "I know you..." There was a long pause while something almost painful seemed to be lurking behind Starsky's eyes. But in another moment it was gone, wiped away with a shrug and a turn of the head. In a much more neutral tone he concluded, "I'm just sorry you didn't enjoy your lunch."

There it was again...that feeling. In the few seconds that had just passed between them, Hutch felt the brief trace of uneasiness that he could barely define. It was more like a sense...a fleeting certainty that there was something deeper here...something that went beyond Starsky's guilt and depression. Something between them...like something off kilter...something not right. But it passed so quickly, as it always did, and Hutch was left with nothing solid to put words or meaning to.

Helplessly, he shrugged as well. "Not a problem," he said quietly before reaching for the ignition and turning the key. Silence once again permeated the car as he drove out of the parking lot.

~~~~~~~

It was close to 7:00 p.m. when Hutch pulled up in front of Starsky's place. He looked over at his partner who was sitting quietly beside him staring off into the distance as though a million miles away.

"You know, it's still pretty early," Hutch ventured cautiously into the silence. "We could go downtown and catch that new science fiction movie. Maybe grab a pizza or something."

Hutch waited, breath held tightly in his chest. Starsky had been distant and quiet for the remainder of the day since lunch and he sensed that this wasn't the time to be pushing. He couldn't help himself though. The thought of letting Starsky just get out of the car and go home alone in the state he was in troubled Hutch.

Several minutes passed before Starsky finally responded quietly. "I don't think so, Hutch. Maybe another night."

Hutch let out the breath he had been holding and along with it stumbled the groping words that he couldn't seem to halt. "Yeah...um...well...I could come up. Watch some TV or something. I mean we don't have to go out or anything. I could still order that pizza...or not...whatever...."

Hutch literally had to bite down on his lip to stop the stream of babble. When did it all become so hard between them? When did he forget how to talk to Starsky?

"I'm kinda tired. I think I'm just gonna go to bed. Another time, OK?"

No, it wasn't OK, but he didn't know how to say that. Some part of him felt he should be grateful that he hadn't set Starsky off, as he had been doing recently, with his pushy invitations. Another part of him was angry as hell that it had to be like this. He started to speak again but then stopped himself. What should he say? Keep pushing the invitation until Starsky got angry and closed him out altogether? Or should he say 'yeah, sure, fine' when it sure as hell wasn't fine? As it turned out, it was Starsky who broke the silence.

"Listen, could you pick me up again tomorrow?"

Hutch looked with confusion towards the Torino that was parked in front of them.

"Yeah sure but...haven't you even taken it into Merle yet?"

"I haven't gotten a chance. Maybe this weekend."

Didn't you say the same thing last weekend?

"Goodnight, Hutch. See ya in the morning."

Before Hutch could even utter goodnight, Starsky was out of the car with the door closed behind him. Hutch watched as he walked quickly towards the apartment, continuing to stare long after he had slipped inside, wondering just who that was that had been sitting beside him. Where was the Starsky who would jump at the chance to go to a movie, especially science fiction? Where was the man who fussed over his car like a mother hen...the man who wouldn't ride a minute longer in Hutch's ‘heap' than he absolutely had to? What happened to the Starsky who would scoff at even the idea of someone going to bed before midnight? Little things again...just little things and yet they screamed out at Hutch like sirens blaring.

Clasping the handle of the door, Hutch made a move to get out. Then he pulled his hand back, changing his mind. In another moment, he opened the door...then slammed it shut again just as quickly. Hutch pounded the steering wheel in frustration as he fought to make up his mind. A memory triggered then...last weekend. Hutch had called Starsky on the phone to try to talk him into going out. Starsky had refused, saying he had a lot of stuff to do around the house. Hutch decided to go over anyway...and was met with a greeting that would make an icicle look warm and toasty. Starsky allowed him to come in, then proceeded to treat him as if he weren't even there.

Hutch stubbornly stayed for several hours, deciding that even though it was uncomfortable, at least he knew Starsky wasn't alone. But then right before he did leave, Starsky came to him with a look of raw pain so deep in his eyes that it burned into Hutch's soul.

"I'm sorry, Hutch...please...please just don't push this right now...I'm doing the best I can...don't make it harder...."

Hutch left feeling like the biggest heel on the planet. He didn't want to make things any harder for Starsky...be the cause of anymore pain or discomfort.

"Don't make it harder...."

Do I do that buddy? Do I make it even harder with all my pushing and pulling at you?

Hutch swallowed past the lump in his throat and reached for the ignition key. He didn't want to leave...he didn't feel right leaving. Yet he wasn't up to seeing that look in Starsky's eyes again...the look that told him that he was making the pain worse. The look that begged him to back off and understand.

As he pulled the car out of the parking space and drove off up the street, Hutch wondered when he ever would understand.

~~~~~~~

Slumped down on the couch, Starsky stared blankly at the images playing across the television screen while a persistent ache continued to develop in his head. He realized he had no idea what he was watching or what it was about, despite the fact that he had been sitting here in front of it for over an hour. With a tired sigh, he leaned forward to change the channel. He flipped through all the channels, not really noting what was on them. Finally, he just pushed the Off button and silenced the TV.

On the coffee table in front of him were the remains of the 'dinner' he had made for himself. A nearly untouched sandwich lay beside a bag of half eaten chips. Beside that was a half empty bottle of beer. He reached for it and took two slugs of the warm liquid. He frowned at the flat taste as he contemplated the sandwich. Did he want it? He probably should eat. But he really wasn't hungry. Maybe later.

Standing, Starsky picked up the food and beer bottle from the table and moved into the kitchen. He noted with little interest the state of disarray things were in. He thought about cleaning up, maybe washing some of the pile of dishes, but he really didn't feel up to it. He put the sandwich plate and chips down on the counter along with the bottle and then flicked off the light as he left the room.

Glancing at the clock in the living room, Starsky noted that it was midnight. Midnight? Wasn't it just 9 something? The dull ache behind his eyes became more insistent so he rubbed his temples as he headed to the bathroom for some aspirin. He found the aspirin jar laying in the sink. Had he already taken some aspirin tonight? He couldn't remember. He couldn't remember much of anything that had happened since he got home...since he had gotten out of Hutch's car. He could remember that...the look on Hutch's face. It was a look he had seen so often these past months; a mixture of concern, confusion and distress. Somehow, I managed to do it again. Why do I keep doing that? How do I keep managing to upset him...to let him down in some new way that I'm not always even aware of?

Gulping down the aspirin with little regard for whether or not he had taken some already, Starsky drew a handful of water up from the faucet and washed them down. Not that they would do much good. Aspirin seemed to have little effect on the headaches these days. Oh well. Maybe they would at least make him sleepy so he could go to bed.

As he returned to the living room, a pile of mail on the table in the corner caught his eye. He moved towards it, hoping that maybe he could actually go through it, take care of it. But as he sifted through the stack of letters, notices, demands, the pain in his head sharpened and he winced from the ache. Sooner or later he had to deal with this. His relatives kept sending all of these papers pertaining to his mother's estate to him. Yet when he looked at them all he could see were blurred words. He wanted to take a match and just set fire to the whole pile. He probably would have if he thought that would make it go away. But it wouldn't go away. It felt as if none of it would ever go away.

He dropped the envelopes back down on the table and moved back to the couch, throwing himself down into it as he stared at the darkened TV screen. His life was starting to feel like that...like images that played across a TV screen that he couldn't quite touch...couldn't comprehend. He just watched it, unable to change the channel...unable to turn it off. Unable to do anything but watch the story play out. He became more and more the distant observer of his own life. Most times he couldn't even feel it anymore...couldn't or wouldn't.

In a flash, the images were back...the ones that assaulted when his defenses were down. He tried to stop them but as always, he couldn't change the channel...just had to watch as they played. He was back in that hotel room with Hutch. After his mother's funeral. After it all came crashing down in a drowning fury that he was helpless to stave off. The lowest point in his life. Feeling like he was falling and would never stop falling. But Hutch caught him. Caught him and comforted him and protected him. And that night in Hutch's arms had been like nothing before in his life. Beauty among the ruins. A glimmer of life amidst all the death. Confirmation that the best part of himself had not been buried too.

Oh, but how bitter the sweet. The briefest taste of what he could never fully have. The understanding that everything you could ever need was right beside you eclipsed by the realization that it could never be yours.

Hutch was his partner, his friend, his family, his life. He was all that mattered in the world anymore. Which is why he could never lose him...why he could never reach beyond what they had to seize what he needed to quiet his soul. It had all felt so perfect that night in Hutch's arms. He never wanted to let it go. Yet he could never risk getting that close to it again because he knew that next time he wouldn't be able to pull away. And then he would lose everything.

Like you're not losing everything now, the bitter voice reminded him. Every day you push him further away. Every day you hurt him again. How long will he keep putting up with it? How long until he tells you to take a hike like he should have a long time ago.

Starsky stood up, shaking his head hard to try to knock the voices and images from inside of him. He couldn't lose Hutch. He couldn't lose anymore. But what the hell did he have left to give Hutch anyway? A man who dreaded going to bed at night because he knew that when he woke up, that moment would come...that moment when he would awaken and have to get up...when he couldn't...when the voices inside would ask ‘Why bother?' and he had no answers...when it took everything inside himself to force his body from that bed even though he couldn't answer ‘why'...when he wondered for the hundredth time what would happen the next morning...would he be strong enough?

Starsky kicked at the coffee table in front of him, knocking it over on its side. He fought the images away. He needed to stop thinking about it...to stop feeling. Just do what you gotta do. That's the only way to get through it. And with that he forced himself into the bathroom to wash up and get ready for bed. There was another moment of apprehension as he left the bathroom and approached the bed. But he forced it back and blanked out his mind. He threw himself down onto the mattress and shut his eyes, waiting for sleep to take him...hoping it would before his mind started working again.

~~~~~~~

A week later, Hutch walked beside his partner as they entered the station. It had been an important bust and many of their fellow detectives had stopped to congratulate them as they passed. Even Captain Dobey was waiting for them by their desk when they approached.

"Hell of a bust. Good work."

"Thanks Captain," Hutch replied as Starsky sat down quietly in his chair.

"I just got a call from Captain Stuart in Narco," Dobey continued. "They really appreciate the assist."

"That's great," Hutch responded. "Maybe he can come over here and give us an assist with all the paperwork." He indicated the stack of folders on the desk.

Dobey smiled and shook his head. "I wouldn't expect that if I were you. But I'll tell you what. Why don't you knock off early today? That'll all still be there in the morning. Paper work always looks less intimidating in the morning light."

"Gee, thanks Captain," Hutch groaned, but he knew he wasn't quite hiding the smile on his face. "You know, actually, I think it looks even better at around 10 a.m. What do you think Cap? Maybe we should come in a little later then?"

Dobey shook his head as he started for his office. "Fine, 10 a.m." he grumbled as he reached for the door.

Hutch, who had followed behind him continued his appeal. "You know, 11 might even be better. I bet that paperwork would be barely noticeable at 11."

Dobey turned around and glared at Hutch who was trying to look innocent. "Don't push it, Hutchinson or you'll be in here at 6:30 a.m."

"You know on second thought, 10 seems like just the right time. I think you were right Captain. 10 a.m. sharp."

"Not a minute after," Dobey barked. "Now get out of here before I change my mind about the leaving early."

"Yes, sir. Whatever you say."

Dobey went into his office and slammed the door. As Hutch turned to walk back towards the desk, he saw Starsky leafing through the top folder from the pile.

"Hey, come on partner. Didn't you hear Dobey? We don't have to tackle that pile until tomorrow. We're off duty."

"You go ahead," Starsky replied in a quiet voice. "I think I'll just get started on this stuff now. I got nothing important to do tonight."

"Well we'll just find something important to do. You're not going to pass up an opportunity to get out of here early, are you?"

Hutch watched in disbelief as Starsky pulled some paper out of his drawer and began to load his typewriter. "There's a lot to do here, Hutch. If I get a jump on it now, there'll be less waiting for us in the morning."

There'll be none waiting in the morning, Hutch thought with disapproval. Starsky had become a paperwork machine, clearing it up faster than it could be laid on the desk. Of late, Starsky had thrown himself into the once despised, and avoided at all costs, task. Hutch couldn't remember the last time he himself had to finish as much as a report. Before he could even pick it up to do it, it was already done. Whenever he mentioned it, Starsky would just say something like he had extra time, or he needed to practice his typing more anyway. But Hutch knew there was more to it than that, and it bothered him.

"Yeah, but in the morning, we'll both be doing it so it will go twice as fast," Hutch stated as he pulled the sheet of paper out of the typewriter. "Right now, I think we should get out of here before Dobey sees us and decides to have us do overtime instead of leave early."

Starsky very calmly pulled another sheet of paper out of his drawer and reloaded the typewriter as he spoke. "Hutch, if you're so anxious to leave then go. I want to get this started. Have a nice time tonight. Why don't you call...what's her name...Jane...Janis...."

"Janet," Hutch corrected with annoyance. He didn't like the way Starsky was dismissing him. Rather than get into an argument, however, he decided to try another tact. "You know, Janet has this friend; tall, red hair, legs that go on for miles. Why don't we all go out? You know, celebrate our big bust."

"No thanks," Starsky mumbled distractedly as he began to type. Hutch had an almost overpowering urge to knock the damn typewriter off the desk so Starsky would have to at least look at him. He felt the anger and frustration boiling inside of him as he watched his partner focus in on the report he was typing as if Hutch were already gone.

"Fine," Hutch stated irritably. "You want to sit here and type damn reports all night, you go ahead. I'll see you tomorrow. And don't look for me before 10." With that he started off gruffly towards the door but turned back at the sound of Starsky's voice.

"Hutch."

"What!"

"Have a good time." It was said so simply and sincerely that Hutch paused, speechless. Starsky looked up at him and smiled then, an open, caring smile that lent credence to the words. The anger drained completely from Hutch's body almost as fast as it had risen.

"Thanks," Hutch muttered as he tried to think of something more to say. But then Starsky turned back to the typewriter and once again became immersed in the report before him.

Hutch left quietly, his mind on his partner as he headed out of the station. Just what the hell was going on between them? He couldn't explain it. All he knew was that Starsky just wasn't Starsky. Except at work. On the job, he was still the intuitive, smart, savvy cop he had always been. His performance today proved that. But when Hutch thought about it harder, he did see a change there too. Oh, Starsky still did the job, no question about it. But there was a coolness there; an icy efficiency that somewhere along the line had replaced the buoyant passion. He was a good, hard working, effective, thorough, detective. He just wasn't Starsky. Not the Starsky Hutch had been partnered with for all these years.

Approaching his car now, Hutch thought harder, determined to figure some things out. He thought about his own dark period; the days when police work had lost any meaning for him and he was just going through the motions. Was that how it was now for Starsky? No, it didn't feel like that. There wasn't any anger there, any hostility or dissatisfaction. Hutch felt angry at the world during that period and came to hate this job and all it stood for. He was an angry cop and it showed in every move he made. It wasn't like that with Starsky. There was no rage there.

Sitting in the car now, Hutch held the key in his hand but did not slip it into the ignition. Instead he thought about how Starsky was after Nick died. Was it like this? After Gunther, Starsky had come back on the force so full of excitement and enthusiasm after his hard road to recovery. He tackled the job with renewed vigor, as though getting back to being a cop and being Hutch's partner were the greatest things in the world. Then Nick died, and he went through all that grief and pain. But he was still there somehow, still connected to things. He yelled and he cried sometimes, mostly he talked...talked about how hard it was, how worried he was about his mom, how much he missed his brother. He was sad and he was hurting but he was still Starsky. Hutch still knew how to talk to him, how to help him.

Now it was like...what? Hutch thought about Starsky's description of one of those crazy movies he loved. He was like one of those pod people. It was Starsky on the outside but nothing on the inside. He went through the motions of Starsky's life but seemed detached from it at the same time. Most worrisome of all, he seemed determined to stay detached...like he was using all his energy to keep everyone and everything else out. But why? Why would this man who had leaned on him through so many crises...who had seen Hutch through an equal number of disasters as well, suddenly want to build these walls around himself?

Did I do something to hurt him? Did betray his trust in some way? Is this my fault? Hutch scoured his mind trying to come up with something he had done to bring all this about. Maybe if he could just figure it out, he could fix it.

Turning the key slowly in the ignition, Hutch finally decided to start the car. He thought about where he wanted to go. He really didn't feel like going out with Janet. He had only been out with her a few times. She had been a convenient way to pass the time and keep his mind off his worries. But tonight he didn't want any distractions. He decided it was best to just go home, sit quietly and try to think this thing through. Maybe, if he was lucky, he would come up with some answers.

~~~~~~~

As Hutch stood outside the door of Starsky's apartment that following Saturday, he had to bring his finger to the bell three times before he could ring it. He had been mulling this over for days, but now that he was finally here, he questioned the decision. He had convinced himself that Starsky's pulling away must have something to do with a lack of supportiveness on his part. He obviously wasn't demonstrating forcefully enough that he was here for him. Maybe he needed to be more persistent. He thought back to the days right after Starsky's mother's death. He had barely left his partner's side then, despite not having been asked to be there.

But he did say several times how glad he was you were there...how much he needed you there. He doesn't say that kind of stuff now. He asks you to leave now.

Confused, Hutch began to wonder again if he should be here. The intent was to stay closer; to be there for Starsky even when his partner's behavior made it difficult or uncomfortable to do so. Maybe Starsky couldn't ask for his help right now, but that didn't mean he needed it less. Maybe the turning away was just a silent plea for help.

But was pushing support on him the way to go?

...don't make it harder...Starsky's voice rang in his memory.

Damn, Hutch thought, what did he mean by that? Stay away?

The only problem with that was Hutch didn't know how to stay away. Not where his partner was concerned. It was not something he ever had to do before.

As the door started to open, Hutch had a fleeting thought about running before Starsky saw him. But it was too late now. Starsky was staring into his eyes with a bewildered expression.

"Hutch, what are you doing here?"

"I had nothing to do," Hutch answered, trying hard to sound casual. "I was getting bored staring at my walls so I thought I'd come over here for a change of scenery. I hope you don't mind."

Hutch half expected Starsky to say ‘I say do mind' and slam the door in his face. But instead, he merely shrugged and stepped back from the door to allow Hutch entrance. Maybe the original instinct was right. Maybe Starsky did need him here. After all, he let him in without a fuss.

As Hutch stepped inside, he realized it had been a while since he had been here. There was a time when he was here, or Starsky was at his place, at least once a day. But he hadn't been here since that dreadful Saturday two weeks ago when Starsky barely spoke to him. Would it be like that again today?

"Want a beer or something?" Starsky asked.

"Sure," Hutch answered, grateful for the welcoming gesture.

As Starsky walked toward the kitchen, Hutch stared at him more closely. Though it was nearly 2 p.m., his partner was still dressed in a pair of pajama bottoms and a wrinkled tee shirt that had obviously been slept in. His face needed a shave and his hair was disheveled, indicating that he hadn't even showered yet.

A glance around the room showed it to be in a worse state than its owner: Clutter strewn everywhere, thick coats of dust covering the furniture, coffee table over on its side. There were stacks of magazines and unopened mail lying about as well as some empty soda cans and beer bottles distributed throughout. The look of the room disturbed Hutch greatly. Not that Starsky was the most fastidious housekeeper, but he had always managed to keep his place tidy even when he was working double shifts. Now, it was not so much that it was messy as it was ‘uncared for.'

Hutch struggled to wipe any traces of concern from his face as Starsky returned with the beers. He focused his attention on a large box that sat near the couch.

"It's a little early for spring cleaning," Hutch said as he took the beer being offered and nodded towards the box.

Starsky looked at it and made an annoyed face. "It's not mine."

For a few minutes, it seemed that was all he would say. But then Starsky put his untouched beer down on the end table and walked over toward the couch. He sat down quietly, pulling the box closer toward him as he studied it with caution.

"It's Nicky's stuff," he muttered, resting his hands on the cover of the box but not removing it. "Aunt Vivian sent it here. It was in my mom's place. She had wanted this stuff when they cleaned out his place. Now they're cleaning out her place...I guess they got pissed waiting around for me to do it. Anyway, they decided that whatever they don't know what to do with, they're sending here. I got this last week."

It had been here since last week and yet it still remained unopened. Hutch moved across the room to rest a hand on Starsky's shoulder in an effort to offer comfort. The reaction to the gesture bothered Hutch, though he should have been getting used to it by now. Starsky never brushed off his touches or flinched, but there was a definite uneasiness and discomfort that came over him whenever Hutch made contact. And his once overtly tactile friend rarely reached out in any way anymore.

What the hell is that about? When did the things that always came so easily between us suddenly become so hard?

Hutch removed the hand, not wanting to do anything to make Starsky uncomfortable, though something that bordered on resentment stirred in him. He forced it deep, reminding himself that he came here to be supportive not to lament his own wounds.

"So, are you going to go through it?" Hutch wondered as he sat down on the chair across from the couch.

"I guess," Starsky replied unenthusiastically. He lifted the lid off the box and laid it down on the floor. Gazing down into the box that seemed filled with pictures, books, mementos and some other assorted junk, his eyes grew distant. "You always wonder what you'll leave behind," he stated in an impassive voice. "Although I don't think you ever really picture it...picture people going through your stuff...looking at it...trying to decide what's important?"

"No, I guess you don't."

"Do you ever really think about it, Hutch?"

"About what?"

"About life. About what it's all for. I mean like, are we put here for a reason and when that reason's finished, we're done?"

Hutch didn't know how to respond. Starsky's voice was growing more remote, yet this was the most he had opened up in a long time. Best to just stay neutral; give him space to say what he needed to say.

"I don't know, Starsk."

"I think about it," Starsky continued as he looked forlornly into the box. "But then if that's it, what was Nicky's reason? Did he do it? Was he finished?" Starsky's left hand reached into the box and pulled out a small framed picture. It was a picture of Nick with his mother and seemed to have been taken at his Bar Mitzvah. "I think maybe he was put here to make her smile," the voice stated wistfully. "Nobody could make her smile like Nick could."

Hutch shifted in the chair, a growing sense of uneasiness coming over him. While he didn't want to interrupt if Starsky needed to get this stuff out, he couldn't help but feel that this was leading someplace very painful. Still, it was better than having Starsky crawl back into that shell again.

"She loved Nick very much," Hutch agreed quietly. "There was no doubt about that."

"I let him down, Hutch. I let them both down."

"What is it that you think you should have done?" Hutch questioned, fighting to keep his own opinion on the matter at bay.

"I don't know," the voice grew colder, full of self-loathing. "I only know what I didn't do." There was a painful edge to the voice now as Starsky stared down at the picture. "Maybe my reason to be here was to take care of them...and I blew that. So now what?" Starsky stood, anger and frustration mounting in his voice. "Why am I still here then? Was it just a fluke that Gunther's men didn't have better aim? Is my being here now just a mistake?"

Something inside Hutch flared beyond his control. Suddenly he heard his voice barking in the quiet room. "Don't say that! Don't ever say that!"

"Why? Maybe it's true." Starsky kicked the box aside as he walked toward the kitchen. Hutch stood and moved forward to grab his arm roughly.

"Don't talk like that! Not ever!" Vivid images came flooding back through Hutch's mind before he could stop them...Starsky on the ground covered in blood and riddled with bullet holes...Starsky hooked up to all kinds of tubes and monitors...the flat line squealing from the screen as doctors fought to bring him back. They were pictures stamped in Hutch's consciousness forever...the visions of a thousand nightmares.

Hutch felt himself twisting Starsky's arm tighter as the images played and replayed. He heard the fierceness in his voice when he spoke. "You didn't die because you weren't supposed to die. It wasn't a fluke or a mistake. You were meant to be here, and you are here and that's the way it's supposed to be!"

"And Nick was supposed to die?" Starsky's voice was emotionless as he stared vacantly at Hutch.

"I don't know...I don't know anything about that. One thing I do know, though, is that while you were laying in that ICU fighting for your life, your brother was nowhere to be found. And during all those weeks in the hospital and all those months you fought to get well after that, he was nowhere again...no calls, no cards, no visits. Too busy out selling tainted drugs to teenagers I guess, huh?"

The minute the words were out, Hutch regretted them. Where the hell had that come from? Not that he didn't mean them though. The idea of Starsky going through all this grief over a no-good brother who hadn't even cared that Starsky had nearly died twisted something inside of Hutch.

Afraid of what he would find there, Hutch forced his eyes to meet his partners. But of all the reactions he expected, a blank, vacant stare wasn't among them. Nor was the quiet whisper that followed Hutch's unplanned outburst.

"Yeah, I know that too."

Starsky gently withdrew his arm from Hutch's grip and moved back towards the couch, staring down at the box in front of it. "I got a lot of stuff I got to get done here, Hutch. Thanks for stopping by."

Oh shit.

The detachment was back...the cool, emotionless veneer. Hutch wanted to scream but he wasn't sure at who, himself or Starsky. He moved to his partner, desperate to scale the walls before they closed him out again.

"Starsk, don't do this," he began in a voice he fought to keep calm. "I'm sorry about what I just said about Nick. It was out of line. But don't push me away. Let me stay here so we can talk this out."

Starsky's eyes became softer for a moment as he regarded Hutch thoughtfully. "I'm not mad at you, Hutch. You didn't say anything that wasn't true. It's not a problem. Really."

"If it's not a problem then why are you shutting me out again?"

Starsky shook his head, rubbing it as though it really hurt. His voice was confused and disjointed.

"I'm not...I...I wasn't trying to...I just have things to do now...I didn't want to make you mad...I screwed up again, didn't I?"

"You didn't screw anything up," Hutch assured despite his own confusion. He didn't have a clue what was going on here. "I just want us to talk, that's all."

"But I don't have anything I want to talk about." The look in Starsky's eyes then became all too clear to Hutch. With a sinking heart he uttered the words he didn't want to hear Starsky say.

"And you don't want me here, either. You want me to leave, right?"

He wished so much that Starsky was going to deny it, but instead, he just turned his head, unable to meet Hutch's eyes.

"I'm sorry, Hutch."

"Don't be," Hutch stated in a curt voice that masked his hurt. He headed brusquely towards the door then, calling back to his partner as he walked. "I'm sorry I bothered you."

He had gotten to the other side of the door and was closing it behind him when he heard the soft reply. "You didn't."

There was something so vulnerable in the tone that Hutch was unable to hold on to his anger, which left only the pain to contend with as he closed the door behind himself.

~~~~~~~

Huggy walked slowly back from the bar with the beers in his hand. As he approached the corner table he studied the sullen blond carefully. He was a little surprised at the things Hutch had been telling him. Not surprised that they happened. Just surprised that Hutch had been so forthcoming.

In the past couple of months, Starsky hadn't been the only one keeping to himself. Hutch did most of his brooding silently and only occasionally did he reveal any of the confusion, worry and frustration that he had been wearing like a second skin. But Huggy saw it. Huggy saw a lot more than either of them knew. The trick was making sure he didn't intervene where he wasn't asked to.

Setting the beers down on the table, Huggy resumed his seat across from Hutch. He looked closely at the tired, troubled face and thought about that morning in the hotel room in New York. Hutch had so wanted to believe that coming home was going to be the answer to everything...well, that and a little time to heal. But life was rarely ever that simple. Especially when you didn't consider the whole picture.

"Here, drink this," Huggy said as he slid the beer towards Hutch. Hutch merely glanced at it with disinterest. "You want something to eat?" Huggy tried. "I could get you a burger or something."

"I'm not hungry," came the grumbled reply.

Huggy sat back with a sigh. "There's no easy fixes here for you, my friend. Beer and food sure aren't the answer. What is? What would make it right?"

"I didn't want to make things worse," Hutch sighed as he shook his head in disbelief at how things had turned out. "I just wanted him to talk to me...to open up."

"He did talk to you."

"I'm not talking about that," Hutch's voice became annoyed. "I don't mean going on about how he let down 'perfect' Nicky or how it was a mistake that he didn't die from those gunshots. Can you believe he said that? You remember how he looked then, Hug. How close he came. To think that he believes maybe he should have..." Hutch's hands had balled up into fists as his body twisted in the chair.

Huggy did remember. He remembered not just Starsky's state but Hutch's as well. He fully believed that had the line on that monitor remained flat, two hearts would have stopped that day and not one. It's still so raw for you. I don't think he has any idea what you went through then...how much it scarred. That's why you can't stand hearing him talk about it like that.

Huggy wrestled for a moment with his thoughts. Which would help Hutch more right now? Conveying his understanding of why the emotions had gotten so out of control or pushing him to see a side of this he wasn't seeing. Taking a deep breath, Huggy decided to go for the latter.

"Oh I see," he began matter of factly. "So, you want him to talk to you. But only about the things you want him to talk about."

"No, that's not what I meant!" The tone was expectedly indignant. "I just meant...it's just," he became flustered now as he fumbled for the words. Finally he just sighed. "I just want him to talk about the stuff that's going on with him. I just want him to let me in."

"Isn't that what he did? Maybe those were the things he needed to talk about right then. Maybe this isn't about you and what you want."

Hutch's eyes reflected shock and dismay as he regarded Huggy closely. "What are you saying?"

"I'm not saying anything. I was merely wondering. And while I'm at it, I wonder about something else. I wonder how you'd feel about yourself if you found out you couldn't fix this."

"I don't want to fix it," Hutch said the word like it bit him. "I just want to help."

"Even if helping meant staying away...not taking over...not making it all better?" Huggy tried to tread lightly on this dangerous ground, but Hutch was still becoming highly agitated.

"So what you're saying here is that this is my fault? That I'm the one who's causing him to pull back because I'm pushing too hard."

"Back to you again, huh?" Huggy shook his head in a quiet sigh.

"I don't get you, Hug. One minute you're saying it's my fault and then the next you're saying all I'm thinking about is me."

"No, that's what you're hearing. That's not what I'm saying."

Hutch was wound so tight, you could stick a pin in him and he would explode all over this bar. There are times people aren't ready or able to hear what's being said, Huggy reminded himself. Still, he had started this and now Hutch was looking at him for answers.

"What are you saying then?" There was so much in that voice, those eyes. Annoyance, impatience, frustration...and behind all that, a naked hope that perhaps Huggy held some key to all the answers he had been wracking himself searching for. Huggy wished more than anything that he did have those answers; that somehow he had a magical way to make this right for these two dear friends who were in so much pain. He leaned forward in his chair, placing a hand over Hutch's forearm as he spoke in as gentle a voice as he could.

"I'm just a lowly barkeep, Hutch. I don't have any profound wisdom or sacred truths. I just listen and observe and try to learn from what I see. I don't have an answer for you, but I'd like you to think about a question. Who are you? Who are you when you're not the White Knight...the hero...the savior who needs to protect at all costs. Who are you when you're simply just Hutch? When you're just a man who can't make everything right. While you're lying around during your next sleepless night torturing yourself over all the things you've done wrong, see if you can find that person...and see if you can't figure out why you hate him so much."

Huggy stood then, grasping Hutch's shoulder with a comforting squeeze before returning to the bar. The confused look in Hutch's eyes confirmed Huggy's suspicions that he wasn't in that place yet to really understand. But he also knew Hutch well enough to know that he would analyze this; rehash it over and over in that never-at-rest brain of his until he could make some sense of it. Huggy only hoped that then he would be able to find the answers he was looking for.

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