The cemetery was cluttered with headstones. Starsky kept tripping over them. There was no place to walk. He wanted to find a path out but there was no path. Just more and more headstones crowding in on him. There was no space, no air. He fought to get a deep breath but couldn't. Something was pressing down on his chest, constricting it.

It was dark now. Dark and damp. Still so little air. He bumped against one of the headstones and fell against it. He tried to get up but he couldn't. Again, the pressure bearing down on him.

"You can't, David," came the voice. He looked all around but couldn't see it in the dark. "There's nothing you can do."

He tried to call out to the voice, but he had no voice himself. No words would come. He saw the box then. It was familiar somehow. A casket. A casket surrounded by all the tombstones. He tried to go towards it but couldn't find a place to put his feet. There was no place to move.

A blurred image by the casket. It looked like a picture. A picture of his father. The one that stood on the mantel at home. The voice was coming from the picture. "There's nothing for you to do. Go away now."

His mother was there next to the picture that spoke. Nicky was holding her hand. Nicky like in the Bar Mitzvah picture. They had that same smile. "I'm going with Nicky now, Davey. You go on home."

Inside his head Starsky was screaming but no words were heard. He tried again to move there, but the heavy weight was on his chest. Nicky was grown-up then. He was laughing. "You can't do nothing for me, Davey. Go on home now. We don't need you."

Nicky and Ma and Dad's picture were moving away from him now. He was cut off...alone in the dark. It was so dark. There was no air. He needed air.

He was in a room now. The room was dark and he couldn't breathe. People were pulling at him but they had no faces...just hands reaching and grabbing. They wanted something but he didn't have it. But they kept pulling at him. He couldn't talk to them...couldn't tell them he didn't have it. He couldn't breathe. They were going to crush him.

But then Hutch was on the floor in front of him. He was opening his shirt and wiping a cool cloth across his chest. The people were pushing behind Hutch, but he didn't let go. He put the blanket around Starsky and picked him up.

Hutch held him close in the bed. Starsky felt the warm hands all over him, stroking him, holding him, touching him. He tried to touch back but he couldn't move. Hutch's face was so close...beautiful lips whispering to him, "It's OK babe, I'm right here."

Starsky's whole body strained to get closer. He had to tell him...tell him now. Beg him not to leave...beg to be loved. Hutch's hand was on his chest helping him breathe. Starsky couldn't move...couldn't tell him. It was all so right. All so right. He could feel their bodies touching...Hutch's mouth was so close. Please kiss me...please...please...please. The longing that was pain ripped through him. The ache so familiar...the want...the need...but he couldn't speak...couldn't move.

The hands were back, pulling again. They pulled at Hutch. Hutch would go with them because Starsky wouldn't stop him. But I can't. Hutch don't.

With everything inside he tried to scream...to call Hutch back, but there was no voice...no words....

The hands were pulling at him again...pulling him down...he couldn't breathe...it was too dark. He was in the box...the pine box...it confined his body so he couldn't move. There was no light...no air...so cold...why can't I scream?

Starsky sat upright in the bed, shaking. He fumbled beside him trying to find the switch for the lamp. The phone fell off the night stand as his arm banged into it. Finally getting the light on, he looked around the empty room searchingly. For a few moments, he wasn't sure where he was. This wasn't the hotel room. Wait, no, this was home. His bedroom.

Images from the nightmare were still fresh...his body still felt tight, as though he couldn't breathe. He darted up out of the bed, needing to know that he could move. There was a fear inside of him...a scared, lonely ache that he couldn't shake even though he now realized it was all a dream.

The sound of the beeping startled him and he jumped. He turned toward the phone on the floor. The receiver was off the hook which is why it was making that sound. He slumped down on the floor beside the phone and grabbed it tightly. He needed to call Hutch. He had to hear Hutch's voice.

Starsky had already dialed the first 3 digits when he slammed the phone down hard. What was he going to say?

Hutch, help me. I had a nightmare.

Hutch, come and hold me. I'm so scared.

Oh god, Hutch. I don't know what's happening to me anymore.

Starsky's trembling hands put the phone back on the night stand as he struggled to get a grip on himself. After all, it wasn't like he didn't have nightmares all the time, right? It was just that lately...well, it was getting harder and harder. He hated going to bed. He dreaded it.

But what was Hutch going to do? Maybe he'd come over. Maybe he'd wrap me in his arms like that night. That beautiful, perfect night. He could hold me and I could feel safe. I could feel his strength all around me. Feel his love. Oh god, I need that love.

And then what? What would happen then? What would happen this time? Starsky knew that he wasn't weak and exhausted and out of it like he was then. Nothing would stop his body from reacting this time. Nothing would keep his limbs from trembling; his breath from quickening; his heart from pounding; his groin from responding. Nothing would stop him from reacting as he had in the countless dreams he'd had of that night since. Sometimes those dreams were worse than the nightmares. Those dreams where he would wake up in Hutch's arms in that hotel bed and Hutch would stroke his face and his hair and his back. The crystal blue eyes would look straight into his soul and they would know the truth; there would be no hiding it from their knowing gaze. And it would all be OK. Hutch would understand, and he would smile that dazzling smile. He would look at Starsky in that way that he only used for his partner. He would chide Starsky for keeping it hidden for so long. And then Hutch would lean forward and touch those moist, luscious lips against Starsky's and....

Stop it! Don't do this again. No more!

Starsky stood up and walked to the bathroom fighting to clear his head of the images. After he had relieved himself and splashed water on his face, he looked at his reflection in the mirror. Who was this person? Who was this man that didn't know how to smile anymore? Who was this man who had to force himself to eat, who feared going to sleep, who felt alone in a crowded room? Who belonged to this tired, listless body that felt as though all the blood had been drained out of it; as though a wet, heavy blanket had been thrown upon it, constantly pulling it down? Starsky had no answers to any of those questions. More frightening, perhaps, was that he wasn't even sure he cared what the answers were anymore.

He dragged himself back into the bedroom, staring at the bed as though it were the enemy. He knew he should be able to do this. He knew he needed to get some rest since he could feel the exhaustion that permeated his entire being. He knew they were only dreams and therefore not real.

He knew he wasn't getting back in that bed.

In the living room, Starsky flipped on the TV as he made his way to the couch. Flopping down on it, he stared at the screen, hoping he could make some sense out of the images, the dialogue; hoping he could make some connection with whatever this was and give his mind a place to focus for a while. It wasn't working though. The characters on the screen could have been speaking Japanese for all he was discerning.

The feelings began to creep up on him again. Loneliness. Isolation. Pain. Fear. He felt his eyes begin to well and his stomach lurch. It was like a volcano brewing so close to the surface. For a brief moment, it threatened to overwhelm everything. But he wouldn't let it erupt.

Just make it go away. Push it back. Just don't feel it.

Starsky took a deep breath and submerged all the emotions in a practiced manner. Just turn it all off. Tune it out like the TV. As long as his mind stayed blank, he would be safe.

~~~~~~~

It was near 7:30 p.m. Wednesday when Hutch slowed his car to a stop outside of Starsky's apartment. He moved the gear stick into the ‘Park' position and sat back in his seat, staring thoughtfully at his partner. Starsky was slumped over to one side, his right cheek pressed against the glass of the side window, fast asleep. Hutch was hesitant to wake him He looked so beat. Besides, it was the first unguarded moment they had spent together all week.

The events of the past weekend had left their mark. Starsky was more distant than ever, seeming almost like a body with no soul inside. And Hutch refused to push it. He knew he had screwed up Saturday and still felt guilty and awkward about it. Luckily for them, crime in LA had been on the upswing the past few days. They had been busy enough on the street that the personal silence between them had been almost unnoticeable. Almost.

Except for the fact that it hung like a dark cloud over them; obscuring all the light, bearing down, oppressively suffocating.

Hutch leaned forward, taking this rare opportunity to study his partner's face closely without being questioned. Starsky was so tired. It was more than a physical tired, although that was there too. But this seemed more like a tiredness of spirit; like a crucial life-force was being slowly drained.

Hutch had sensed that Starsky hadn't been sleeping well these past months. The dark circles under his eyes were becoming a part of his features. But the past few days, the problem seemed to have worsened. Every move he made seem to require maximum effort. By the end of the day, there was a weariness that suffused his entire being. Tonight, he had fallen asleep five minutes after sitting down in the car seat. Yeah, it had been a hectic day and Hutch had felt the strain himself. But his partner seemed to be depleted in a way that went beyond the stress of the job.

What's going on with you, babe? Why won't you let me help you?

Even in sleep the face was troubled. There was a tightness to the features that indicated even sleep was not a respite. Hutch gazed down to the left hand that was clenched in a fist, knuckles white with tension. Without thinking, he laid his hand on top of the fist and began to stroke it gently. He needed so much to soothe some of that tension; to just for a moment ease some of that tightly wound ball of pain.

Starsky stirred slightly, a sound of discomfort escaping from his throat. Hutch noticed the fluttering behind the closed lids and knew he was caught in some kind of dream. Hoping to ease him from its grip, Hutch slid closer along the seat until he was pressed up next to Starsky. He continued to stroke the hand while he reached over with his other arm and trailed his fingers softly through Starsky's curls.

Starsky moaned again, more painfully this time. It was a harsh, stifled sound, like a scream that was trapped unuttered. All of Hutch's protective instincts came alert as he pushed closer still. Starsky's breathing became irregular as he struggled for air.

"It's OK, Starsk," Hutch whispered, trying to coax him awake. "It's just a dream. Let it go."

Hutch felt the body beside him grow rigid as the fluttering eyelids tore open. The look in the expressive blue eyes was a mixture of pain, disorientation and fear. Starsky was gasping noiselessly as his eyes roamed searchingly, trying to get his bearings.

"It's OK, you're safe. I'm right here. It was just a dream."

Starsky turned towards the voice. Because of their proximity, this brought his face directly in front of Hutch's. Hutch could feel the shaky breath brush against his cheek as Starsky blinked his eyes hard, trying to see beyond whatever vestiges of the nightmare remained.

"Hutch?" The voice was hoarse and scratchy.

"Yeah, I'm right here, babe. Take it easy. I'm right here." Hutch continued to draw his fingers through Starsky's hair in a comforting gesture. Starsky's eyes bore into his as though they wanted to crawl inside them. The tension in the taut body relaxed a fraction as Starsky let out a long sigh.

Hutch looked deeply into the face that was more open to him then it had been in a long time. He could see Starsky there...the partner he knew and missed and loved. Hutch slid his hand down from the curls to caress the side of that face that he had missed so much.

"Hutch." The voice was more relaxed this time: more affirmation than question. Starsky closed his eyes, leaning his face into Hutch's hand. The fist that he had been holding in his other hand loosened and unsteady fingers interlocked with his. Something stirred deep inside Hutch. It had been so long since Starsky had let himself be touched, had responded to it so openly. Hutch only now fully realized how much he had missed the contact. It was as though he hadn't allowed himself to recognize the longing before because it had been too painful. But now, in this moment, for the first time in a long time, he felt whole...completed.

"I'm right here, buddy," Hutch assured softly. And you're right here where you belong.

Starsky's eyes opened slowly. They were soft and moist and vulnerable. They were the most beautiful sight Hutch had seen in a long time. There was something so compelling in those eyes. Something that called to Hutch. Something that drew a response from someplace so deep inside that he couldn't put a name to it. Those eyes were calling to him. There was a need there...a need for something that only Hutch could fulfill. Somewhere inside he must have the answer that his partner needed. In that brief moment he knew whatever it was Starsky needed, only he could give it.

But in the next moment, everything changed. Something panic stricken passed through Starsky's eyes. His body became rigid and his hand pulled back from Hutch's as though it were on fire. The eyes that had just been so open, so guileless, became closed and distant; unreadable. Starsky pulled back in the seat, plastering himself against the door as he fumbled for the handle.

Hutch fought to understand what was happening. What brought this on? What did he do wrong? He reached out toward Starsky, struggling for words as his mind continued to race. "Wait, what's wrong? What happened?"

"Nothing's wrong," Starsky lied agitatedly. "I just gotta go. Goodnight, Hutch."

"Starsky, no, wait!" But Starsky had finally located the door handle and already had one foot on the sidewalk.

"I'm sorry, Hutch. Goodnight." And with that, he was gone, sprinting off towards the building as the car door slammed behind him.

Hutch sat, unable to move, staring at the empty seat where his partner had just been moments before. What the hell just happened here? For a few brief glorious moments, Starsky was Starsky and all was right with Hutch's world. And then...smack...it was all over, and the stranger was back. What happened in between?

Hutch wasn't sure how long he sat immobilized in his car. It was 8:40 when he finally found the coherence to put the car into ‘Drive' and begin the journey home. He got there mostly on instinct since his brain was busy replaying the evening over and over. Repeated viewing of the events only served to heighten his confusion. Finally, he just gave up trying, dragging himself from the car and up the stairs to his place, feeling defeated and exhausted.

~~~~~~~

The next two days were very tense. The conversations between them were kept strictly to the job, and even then the exchanges were minimal. Hutch made a couple of attempts to bring up what had happened in the car, but Starsky became unnerved and defensive, insisting that everything was all right. Finally, Hutch just let it lay, totally at a loss as to how to deal with the situation.

His concern for his partner continued to build, however. At times, Starsky seemed like a tightly wound bomb ready to explode at any moment. At other times, he appeared numb, seemingly oblivious to what was going on, both around him and inside of him. Hutch had never felt so helpless where his partner was concerned. He could see the distress signals so clearly but was clueless about how to respond to them.

Frustration and worry escalating, Hutch could no longer stand by and do nothing. He had decided that even if he couldn't do anything to help Starsky, that didn't mean no one could. By the end of the shift on Friday, Hutch was in Dobey's office requesting a leave of absence for his partner.

"Does Starsky want a leave of absence?" Dobey questioned from his seat behind the desk.

"No, but he needs it," Hutch responded as he paced agitatedly about the room.

"So what are you saying? You want me to force him to take a leave?"

"It's for his own good, Captain."

"And on what grounds do I make this request? On the grounds that he's too quiet? That he doesn't drive enough? That he does too much paperwork? That he's tired?"

Hutch sighed, his frustration welling. Yeah, the stuff he had been telling Dobey sounded insignificant when phrased like that. But they were all signs...all signs that something wasn't right.

"Cap," he appealed earnestly, "we know what Starsky's like and we both know that something is terribly wrong with him. He needs some time...he needs to figure out what's going on...to try to take care of it...."

"Hutch," Dobey cut in, his voice empathetic. "I know what you're saying, believe me I do. As his friend, I'm worried about him too. But as his Captain, I have no grounds to force him to take a leave. He does his job, Hutch. There's no disputing that."

"But it's how he does it, Cap," Hutch insisted. "He goes through the motions. He's efficient and thorough, but there's no heart in it. It's like he's on auto-pilot; some instinct that makes him get out of bed and come to work every day, but that's all there is."

Dobey stood then, moving around to the front of the desk where he sat on its edge next to Hutch. "You're not telling me anything I haven't seen with my own eyes. He's in a bad way, has been for months. It pains me to watch it and I would do whatever I could to help, but I can't do what you're asking. You know that." Dobey reached out a hand and placed it on Hutch's shoulder. There was compassion in his eyes. "Hutch, I know what this is doing to you, how hard it is."

Back to you again, huh? Huggy's voice echoed in his ear.

Was that what this was about? Did he come in here because it was what Starsky needed or what he needed to do? Was this just another attempt to fix it?

"I'm sorry, Cap. You're right. I had no right to ask you to put him on leave. It's his life. I shouldn't be in here trying to run it." Hutch felt tired and dispirited.

"You were worried. It's very understandable. Hutch, I'm here for you too, you know. If you need to talk...."

"I know. I appreciate it." Hutch turned to leave then, not even hearing the last thing Dobey uttered before he closed the door behind him. Starsky was at his desk, typing diligently.

Hutch just stood quietly in front of Dobey's door looking at him.

Who are you when you're simply just Hutch? When you're just a man who can't make everything right?

"Jane called," Starsky's voice called to him.

"Huh?" Hutch's mind was a million miles away.

"I said Jane called."

"Jane? Oh, you mean Janet."

"Whatever. She said she'll be waiting for you at 8:00."

"Thanks," Hutch murmured as he made his way towards his desk. He had made that date over a week ago and promptly forgotten all about it. Oh well, what the hell. It beat brooding, didn't it?

Picking up his jacket off the back of his chair, Hutch spoke quietly to his partner. "I'm gonna get going. Have a good weekend."

He had started towards the door, not expecting much response when Starsky's voice halted him.

"Hutch, hold up. Can I hitch a ride?"

Hutch was taken aback. He thought sure that Starsky was going to stay here buried in that pile of paperwork. "Yeah, sure, I didn't know you were ready." Or willing to ride home with me. You wouldn't last night.

"I can finish it Monday," Starsky said, nodding toward the folders on his desk as he stood up and put on his jacket.

"I'm sure it will still be there," Hutch responded, not knowing what else to say. Talking to Starsky had become an exercise in avoidance. He chose every word carefully, hoping that he didn't pick the wrong ones.

Starsky didn't say anything more. He just came up beside Hutch to indicate he was ready to leave. And with that, they walked quietly from the station house.

~~~~~~~

Sitting at the table across from Hutch, the voice in Starsky's head kept asking him what he was doing. Hutch was obviously surprised when Starsky invited him in for a beer, but Starsky was even more surprised that the words had come out of his mouth. This wasn't a good idea. It was too dangerous, especially after what had happened in the car the other night.

Watching Hutch bring the beer to his mouth, Starsky focused on the moist lips, memories flooding back to him. At first, he had believed it was another dream, waking up to find Hutch so close to him, touching him. The touch was like a salve on his open wounds...the gentle voice hushing the raging fear...the sincere blue eyes offering sanctuary from the isolation. Defenseless, Starsky's shields began to crumble and everything that had been held at bay for so long began to surge forward in an overpowering rush.

In that brief moment he almost gave into it, too tired to fight any more. But then some deep-seated survival instinct kicked in and he fled. He had spent the last two days, and sleepless nights, trying to push all of those emotions back beneath the surface where he would be safe from them. But the strain between him and Hutch had intensified, and it was tearing him apart. He had seen the look on Hutch's face as he fled from the car. He had seen the look last Saturday when he asked Hutch to leave. Every day, every moment, he seemed to discover some new way to hurt this man that he only wanted to love.

"So, are you taking the car into Merle tomorrow?"

Hutch's question broke the silence between them and Starsky fought to clear his mind.

"Huh? Oh. Yeah, I guess so."

He hadn't really thought about it. He had no real desire to drive anywhere. Still, he really should get it fixed. It wasn't right for Hutch to have to be chauffeuring him to work every day.

"Sorry. I know it's a pain having to pick me up all the time."

"It's not that," Hutch was quick to clarify. "I was just wondering, that's all. I know how much you hate riding around in my car."

A shadow of a smile came upon Starsky unexpectedly, as he remembered some of the not-so-subtle ways he had gotten that point across to Hutch over the years.

"It's not so bad," he mumbled, enjoying the confounded look in Hutch's eyes. Starsky motioned towards the half-empty beer bottle. "You want something else? Another beer? Something to eat? I can make you a sandwich."

"No thanks. I'm good."

"Oh yeah, that's right. You gotta get going. You have a date." Starsky regretted the flip tone, but Hutch seemed not to notice. He glanced at his watch casually.

"No, it's OK. I've got time."

Again, the silence fell, but it wasn't a comfortable silence. It seemed like a lifetime ago since there was that ease between them; that affinity that made even the quiet moments relaxed. Everything was hard now and Starsky knew it was because of him. But knowing that didn't make him any more able to solve the problem. Still, he really needed to put something right. It wasn't fair to keep hurting Hutch just because he was such a screwed-up mess.

"Listen, Hutch, about Saturday," he began hesitantly, trying to tackle one of the issues that hung between them. "I don't want you to think I didn't appreciate your being here. And I'm sorry if I upset you."

"I'm the one who should be sorry." Hutch jumped at the opportunity to discuss the topic. "I was way out of line saying those things about Nick."

"You were just saying what you thought...telling the truth. I can't fault you for that." I can't fault you for not being a coward like me.

"Whatever he was, he was still your brother." Hutch's voice was tender...the way it was in the car. "I know you're hurting over it, Starsk. I just want to help."

There it was again...that look in Hutch's eyes that made Starsky's insides turn to mush. The look that made him weak, left him unguarded. The look he couldn't afford to bask in.

He got up, moving away from the table. Away from those eyes.

"I put the box in the closet. I figured it's not going anywhere. I can go through it some other time."

"That sounds like a good idea."

Starsky had moved into the living room to the couch, where he sat down. Hutch followed in after him, sitting down in the chair.

Why did I do this? Why did I ask him here?

At the same time he questioned it, he knew the answer. More and more the loneliness had been threatening to envelop him. It nearly did Saturday the moment Hutch closed the door behind him. And Wednesday...coming up from that car...coming in here to the emptiness and the memories and the desolation....

But even now, sitting here with Hutch, none of it abated. The feeling of isolation had grown so strong, it followed him whether he was alone in a room or not. It was like he was cut off; adrift on this island where nobody could reach him, and he didn't even remember how to call out for help. He didn't know what he would say if he did call out. There didn't seem to be any words to describe what he felt anymore. All he knew was that it was dark and oppressive and consuming...and utterly helpless.

"Did you hear Miller got promoted?"

Starsky struggled to focus on the neutral conversation Hutch was trying to draw him into.

"Yeah, that's great. He deserved it."

"Hey, did he show you the pictures of that new baby of his?"

"Of course he did. He couldn't stop beaming." Starsky paused for a moment, thinking back to the picture of the brand new, brown-eyed baby boy. "Nicholas," he muttered without thinking.

"Shit."

Starsky looked up to see Hutch's face drain of color. Obviously, his partner hadn't been thinking about the newborn's name when he brought up this 'safe' topic. Starsky hastened to defuse the guilt Hutch was sure to feel.

"It's OK. It's not a big deal."

"Yeah, it is a big deal," Hutch snapped in annoyance which was directed more at himself than at Starsky. "I don't seem to be able to say anything to you without screwing up anymore."

"Don't do that, Hutch. It's not you."

"Really? Then what is it? What is it that makes us sit here like a couple of strangers, tip-toeing around each other, searching for small talk?"

The hurt in Hutch's eyes ran deep. Starsky began to realize how hard his partner had been working these past months to mask it.

I put that hurt in your eyes and you work your ass off trying to protect me from it. Jeez, what a shallow shit I am.

"It's not you," Starsky repeated. "You don't do anything wrong. Your only mistake is putting up with me."

"What does that mean?" Hutch seemed desperate to understand. Starsky wished he understood it himself so he could free Hutch from worrying about it.

"I don't know what it means." Starsky stood up, his own agitation making him restless. "I think maybe it means you better go. Staying around me right now is just going to make things worse for you."

Hutch stood too, his voice straining to stay calm but losing the battle.

"You think it's that easy? You think I just walk out that door and...poof!...you're out of my mind and all is wonderful? Is that what you think?"

"No," Starsky uttered, the tension in his head beginning to pound in a painful rhythm. "I just...I can't do this Hutch."

"So you want me to leave? That's what you want?" There was a bitter edge to the words that revealed the inner turmoil.

"Yes," Starsky whispered as he turned away, unable to face him.

"Oh, no you don't." Hutch was immediately beside him, determined hands gripping him and turning him around, forcing him to face the damage he had done.

"Stop hiding! If you've got something to say to me then you say it to my face. What do you want, Starsk? You want me to leave and pretend everything's fine? You want me to keep ignoring this thing that's festering between us like it's no big deal? What do you want?!"

The eyes that bore into him were even more demanding then the hands that held him; eyes that demanded answers...demanded the truth...demanded his soul.

What do I want? I want this all to stop. I want to feel normal again. I want to stop hurting you. I want to stop waking up in the middle of the night unable to scream, unable to move. I want to end all the lies between us. I want to love you. I want to be worthy enough for you to love me back. I want to believe that I can curl up inside your strong, loving arms and shut all of this out...make it all stop. I want to be able to feel again without the fear that if I do, I'll be swallowed up inside that black murky swamp that's just waiting to drown me.

Head swirling, Starsky heard his voice mumbling words before his brain got a chance to censor them.

"I want you to stay...I don't want you to leave."

The grip on his arms loosened as the eyes staring down at him softened.

"Fine. No problem." The voice was so soothing, so gentle, Starsky felt disarmed by its caress.

Mind still swimming, Starsky fought to comprehend what was happening. Vaguely, he was aware of Hutch moving towards the phone. He made out pieces of the conversation with Jane or Janis or whatever her name was. From what he could gather, she was none-too-thrilled with his partner's last-minute cancellation, but Hutch didn't seem in the least concerned or apologetic. Starsky got the impression that Jane wouldn't be making any more calls to the station in the near future.

What the hell are you doing? Why did you do that? Why are you doing this to him? How did you let this happen?

Starsky was fighting desperately to remember what he had said. So many things had been screaming in his mind. Which of them had he said aloud? It was all so cloudy. He was so tired. His head hurt so much.

'Stay.' You asked him to stay.

"OK. That's done. See, that wasn't so hard, was it?" Hutch seemed so relaxed, so at ease. "All you had to do is tell me, buddy. Is that so hard?"

"No," Starsky was mumbling nearly incoherently. "No, that's not right." He walked over to the phone and picked up the receiver, holding it out towards Hutch with his unsteady hand. "Call her back. Tell her it was a mistake. Tell her you're coming."

Hutch was looking at him totally baffled. "What?"

"It's not too late. You can call her back. You can..." Starsky stopped, trying to get a deep breath. His pulse was racing way too fast.

Hutch took the receiver from his hand and hung it up. "Starsky, I'm not calling her back. You asked me to stay and I'm staying. I want to stay. It's all right."

That voice again. That voice would be his undoing if he wasn't careful. He felt the sweat breaking out across his forehead as he fought once more to clear his mind...steady his voice.

"I don't want you to do this. You need to go."

"Didn't we just go through this?" Hutch sighed, a note of exasperation in his voice.

"I shouldn't have said what I said. I didn't mean to...I...."

"You what? You didn't mean the words, or you didn't mean to let them slip out?"

Oh God, I can't do this. Please make it stop.

"I'm sorry, Hutch."

"I don't want you to be sorry. Just talk to me, Starsk. You want me here. I know you do. Why are you trying to push me away again? Just talk to me."

The voice was so imploring, the face so compassionate. Starsky wished with everything inside of him that he could find a way to keep from failing Hutch again. But he knew there was no avoiding it. He didn't have what Hutch needed. He didn't have what anyone needed. There were no answers...no explanations...no words. Why couldn't Hutch see that? Why couldn't anyone see that?

"I can't...I just can't..." He struggled to keep his limbs from shaking as he backed away from Hutch. "Please Hutch...just go...just leave it alone...."

He headed for the bedroom, closing and locking the door behind him as he heard Hutch's distressed calls.

"Starsky! Damn it, don't do this! Starsky!"

The knob rattled and the door shook as Hutch tried to gain entrance.

"Open the door!"

Starsky's knees gave out and he slumped down to the floor with his back against the door as Hutch continued to pound on it.

"This is ridiculous. Open the damn door, Starsky!"

Starsky fought for breath as the room before him blurred. He could feel his heart beating hard against his chest as he struggled to control the overload.

Just push it away. Block it out. Make it stop.

"Fine, Starsky. You want to run, run. But I'm not going anywhere. I said I was staying and I'm staying. Sooner or later you're going to have to face this."

The body huddled against the door barely heard the words.

Push it back. Just don't think about it. Don't think about anything.

With effort, he forced air in and out of his lungs while his mind strove for nothingness.

Everything will be OK if you just don't think.

~~~~~~~

Light pierced persistently through his heavy, closed lids. He tried to ignore it, not wanting to be pulled from the grip of sleep. He was tired. So tired. His body felt as though it weighed a thousand pounds and at least a hundred of those pounds were weighing down his eyelids.

Despite his reluctance, awareness was creeping back, his mind ascending from the depths of sleepfulness of its own accord.

As the swollen lids slit open, his pupils were assaulted by the shaft of sunlight blazing in through the window. A sharp pain coursed through his eyes and reverberated in his already throbbing head. With effort, he was able to shift his body, turning his back to the brightly lit window.

That simple movement nearly depleted him. He lay still for a long time after that, hoping that sleep would once again claim him. That was not to be, however, as his mind was working against him.

Piece by piece, the memories filtered back. Awareness came with them. He was stretched across the foot of the bed, still fully dressed. Somewhere in the night he had made it from the floor to here, but the details of the journey were sketchy.

He wasn't sure how long he had sat on the floor before that. There were blurred recollections; fighting for breath...limbs quaking...mind fighting to shut down...body becoming limp with exhaustion.

And before that?

Hutch.

He wondered if Hutch was still out there. Surely he would have left by now, wouldn't he? Starsky knew he had to go out there and see...go out and face the million things he needed to face...yet he couldn't muster the energy to do so.

Today was Saturday, wasn't it? No need to get up. There was no work to do today. Maybe he could just lay here until it was Monday again...or maybe even beyond that. What difference did it make?

Time passed again unnoticed. Was it minutes, hours? He couldn't relax enough to fall back to sleep, yet he couldn't rouse the energy to move from the bed either. He began to wonder if he laid here long enough would everything else around him just disappear?

No such luck, I'll bet.

Eventually, the pressure on his bladder made moving a necessity. Fleetingly, he considered just letting it go right there. The self-disgust engendered by that image provided enough motivation to rouse his body from the bed.

Soundlessly, he unlocked and opened the door. Apprehensive about what he would find on the other side, he ventured forth with caution.

The apartment was quiet. He stopped in the bathroom to take care of business and then walked silently out to the living room.

Hutch was sprawled on the couch -- half sitting, half laying -- with the afghan tossed over part of his body. He was asleep, although it didn't look like a restful sleep. It seemed born more of exhaustion then relaxation.

The guilt that filled Starsky at the sight threatened to overwhelm him. For a moment, he considered fleeing the apartment and never looking back...never returning to have to face the pain that surely lurked behind those closed eyelids. The pain that he caused.

"Sooner or later you're going to have to face this."

Maybe Hutch was right about that. Starsky didn't know. All he knew for sure was that he couldn't leave. He had hurt Hutch enough for one lifetime. To let him wake up and find that his partner had slipped out, abandoned him...no, he couldn't do that. He had done enough damage already.

Having decided he was staying, he was faced with the dilemma of what to do with himself. He needed to do something, anything. Anything that would keep him from having to think too much.

He had no desire to go back in the bedroom. It had taken tremendous effort to get out of bed once today. He wasn't sure if he would be able to do it again. He risked waking Hutch if he did anything in the living room. That left the kitchen.

Wandering in there aimlessly, he noted what a mess his kitchen had become. When was the last time he cleaned in here? He moved towards the stack of dishes that lay unwashed in the sink. The idea of washing them wasn't very appealing, but at least it was something to do.

He began the chore with minimal enthusiasm, leaning up against the sink as he held his hands under the steady stream of water. His tired mind drifted, focusing alternately on the sound of the water, the smell of the soap, the feel of the sponge. When awareness returned, he was surprised to find he had been soaping all the dishes and laying them on the counter in the same manner Hutch always used. Hutch....

He didn't leave me. He stayed here all night even though I acted like a crazy shit.

The thought was comforting and frightening all at once. It touched him to know how deeply Hutch cared. But he knew he didn't deserve it. He knew eventually he would ruin it. And when it was gone....

Starsky shuddered with the chill that ran through him. How long until it was gone? His hands began to tremble in the water as he thought about last night. Soaping the glass he held with a vengeance, he began to wonder if somehow he had purposely hurt Hutch.

You know some part of you enjoyed it. One word from you and he blew her off without even blinking an eye.

Starsky got the glass to the counter a moment before he would have dropped it. Christ, was he manipulating Hutch? Using his partners loyalty to keep Hutch with him?

You keep pushing him away, but the more you push, the more he comes back. Is that what you wanted?

Starsky viciously grabbed the handle of the pot and brutalized it with the soap. The harsh self-loathing that was infusing him threatened to choke him. He never, ever wanted to do anything to hurt Hutch. Hutch was the only thing in the world that even mattered any more.

Then why do you keep hurting him? Why do you claim to love him and then treat him so horribly?

A side of Starsky's consciousness tried to fight back, reminding him he wasn't doing it on purpose. He never meant to hurt Hutch. Everything was just spinning out of control and he was hanging on as best he could. But an angry voice inside berated him for his selfishness.

He's your partner. In spite of everything, you're supposed to look out for him. But you're blowing that too...just like you did with Nicky.

Starsky's hands worked frantically at the dishes now as he tried to push the voices from his mind. But they were relentless.

You're going down...every day you sink a little further...and you're pulling him right along with you.

He knew it was true. He knew he needed to find some way to let Hutch go before he did more damage. But he also knew he couldn't. Hutch was all that was left in the world...the only thing that mattered. How could he let that go without letting himself go as well?

Pain was coursing through his body, but he became numb to it. He had gotten so good at shutting out the pain. But could he withstand the pain of losing Hutch?

Eventually, it's going to happen anyway. I can't love him the way I need to, and I can't let him go. I'm dooming him to live in this hellacious limbo with me until it destroys us both.

He felt his fists tightening as he tried to steel himself against his mind's assault. Once again, his body shook beyond his control, pain coursing through his arms and knotting his stomach and head.

Oh God, what's happening to me? Is this what it's like to go insane? How do insane people know they're insane?

"Starsk!"

The frightened call snapped him from his reverie, though his mind still felt dazed and cluttered. He looked to see Hutch striding purposefully toward him, a pale look of alarm etched in his features.

"What the hell are you doing!?"

There was a note of panic in Hutch's voice that Starsky didn't understand. He stood mutely as Hutch came up beside him reaching frantically for his arm.

"Jesus Christ, babe."

There was distress in the voice now as Hutch's hand went around Starsky's left wrist. Looking down, Starsky finally saw what had Hutch so concerned. His hand was wrapped tightly around the carving knife he had been washing. The serrated edge was closed inside his clenched fist and thin streams of blood were oozing out between his fingers.

With an almost surreal detachment, Starsky found himself watching the scene as if it were happening to someone else. He hadn't even been aware of the knife in his hand, and the sharp pain had become lost beneath the burden of everything else he was contending with.

Hutch kept a firm grip on Starsky's wrist with his left hand while carefully unfolding the fingers with his right. From somewhere in his consciousness, Starsky noted that Hutch's hands were lightly trembling.

The blade of the knife was imbedded deeply within the skin of Starsky's palm. With his hand now open, more blood was escaping from the wound and running down into the sink, mixing with the soapy bubbles near the drain to create a red, bubbly clog.

Starsky limply dropped the sponge from his right hand as he watched Hutch gingerly dislodge the knife from his broken skin. The blood started to gush full force then as Hutch dropped the red- stained knife into the sink and pulled Starsky's hand under the water.

His head reeled, making it difficult for him to concentrate on figuring out just how this had happened. Hutch was mumbling something, but he couldn't make out what it was. He numbly watched Hutch. His partner had a firm grip on his wrist, holding it under the water as he reached with his other hand to open a drawer and remove two clean dish towels.

Hutch was turning off the water now. He kept Starsky's bloody hand over the sink as he wrapped first one towel then the other tightly around it. Supporting the hand in his, he turned Starsky away from the sink.

"We need to get you to the hospital," he was saying, voice leaden with mixed emotions. "That gash is too deep. You're going to need stitches."

Stitches? What the hell had he done? He looked meekly into Hutch's eyes. His friend's face was colorless, eyes burning with worry and fear. The pain he garnered from Hutch's appearance broke through his lethargy in a way that the knife could not.

"I'm sorry, Hutch," he whispered hoarsely, hearing his voice in a distant echo. The hand supporting his arm was trembling harder now. He noticed that patches of blood were already seeping through the layers of terry cloth.

"Let's just get to the hospital."

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