Peering into the bedroom, Hutch saw that Starsky was sleeping soundly. The pain killer they gave him at the hospital had really knocked him out. His eyes were drifting shut before Hutch could even steer him to the bed.

Closing the bedroom door quietly, Hutch walked into the living room and flopped down onto the couch. His head spun as the adrenaline rush that had been sustaining him finally started to dissipate. He closed his eyes, trying to sort out the disconcerting chain of events. Behind his closed lids, he kept seeing red...blood red.

The wound had bled a great deal before they got to the hospital. It had taken ten stitches to finally close it. Some tendons were damaged, which would limit Starsky's use of the hand for weeks.

"Well, I guess he's going to be on that leave after all," Dobey had stated when Hutch called him. Starsky wouldn't be able to grip a gun for some time and even paper work would be difficult since Starsky was a lefty. Writing was impossible and turning an already slow two-finger typist into a one-finger typist meant that reports could probably be carved in stone faster than Starsky could type them.

Hutch shook his head as he opened his eyes, still struggling to figure out what the hell had happened. Starsky hadn't said a word either en route to the hospital or during his time there. He was dazed and remote, as if he were uncertain himself what was happening to him. When they got back here, Starsky merely informed Hutch that he was exhausted and that there was no need for Hutch to stay since he was probably going to sleep for a long time.

Hutch knew he should have confronted him and gotten him to talk about what had happened. But he had seemed so lost during the ordeal, and afterwards the exhaustion that permeated his body was clearly visible. Hutch just didn't have the heart to push him about anything.

So what do I do? Just pretend like this didn't happen?

Gazing down at his clothes, Hutch saw the blood stains that clung to him in silent testament to the seriousness of what took place here this morning. A shudder passed through him as the images replayed in his mind. He could see Starsky standing over the sink, body shaking, eyes glazed and vacant, as though his mind were a million miles away. He stood there clutching the knife so tightly that the veins in his wrist protruded. But he was oblivious...oblivious to the knife piercing deep into his flesh...oblivious to the blood oozing from his hand.

Hutch shuttered again, remembering the feeling of sheer panic that gripped him at the sight. Even when Hutch approached him, Starsky seemed to have no idea what he had done.

Or did he?

Starsky wouldn't have hurt himself deliberately, would he?

Hutch shook his head, refusing to accept that thought. But even if the act hadn't been deliberate, the lack of concern over it was cause for alarm. Starsky had stood there so apathetically, as though the pain didn't penetrate...as though it didn't matter.

Restlessly, Hutch stood, pacing around the room as he tried to make sense of this.

Are you hurting so much that you can't even feel the pain anymore? Or have you just stopped caring about it?

Hutch thought about Starsky's recovery from the near fatal gunshot wounds. Almost from the moment he woke up in that hospital, Starsky was fighting to get well. Every hour of every day he was working toward recovery. Yet that same man sat today in a hospital emergency room watching them stitch up his hand with such a total lack of interest that it may have well been some stranger's hand.

Nothing made sense any more. Nothing had for months. And this past week...the scene in the car followed by the near total shutdown...the contradictory behavior last night followed by this morning's bizarre incident...this past week had been nothing but baffling. Hutch didn't know what to think any more and he certainly didn't know what to do.

Realizing that his pacing had brought him into the kitchen, Hutch moved closer to the counter and gazed down at the blood-spattered sink. An uneasy wave twisted and churned in his stomach, bringing with it a fierce bout of nausea. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, fighting off the insistent sensations.

Something was wrong. Something was terribly, horribly wrong. And he had the sinking feeling that if he didn't figure things out soon, it would be too late.

~~~~~~~

Hutch sat at his desk at Metro, impervious to the hubbub that surrounded him in the busy office. He reached for the phone, then hesitated, running the idea through his mind once more. As ideas went, it wasn't remarkable, but it was all he had at the moment. Bolstering himself, he reached again for the phone and dialed.

It took five rings before Starsky finally answered the phone in a listless voice.

"Hello."

"Hi, Starsk, it's me."

"What's up?" The tone changed to cautious.

"I need a favor." Hutch paused for a moment to see if there would be a response. When there wasn't, he pushed ahead. "I was heating up some stuff in the oven this morning. The phone rang as I was taking it out. I remember answering it, then when I hung up, I remember grabbing the food container and heading out the door. What I don't remember is turning off the oven. Now I'm sitting here with the sinking feeling that I didn't."

"You didn't turn off your oven?"

"I'm not sure. I wanted to run home and check at lunch time but Dobey's got me up for that baby-sitting assignment with those London police detectives. You know, the ones who are coming here for the tour."

"Yeah, I remember."

"I was hoping you could take a ride over there for me and check it out."

Hutch held his breath as he listened to the silence on the other end of the line. Starsky couldn't use the car as an excuse since Hutch had taken it over to Merle's himself Monday morning and gotten it repaired, not wanting Starsky to be stranded at home with no transportation. What else could he say? That he was busy? How would he make that one fly?

When the silence lengthened, Hutch tried to push a bit.

"Hey buddy, you still there?"

"Yeah." The voice was low, almost imperceptible.

"So you'll do it?"

Again, the long silence. Finally, Hutch heard Starsky sigh and respond unenthusiastically.

"Yeah, I'm on my way."

"Thanks. I really appreciate it. I'll talk to you later. Bye."

Hutch hung up quickly, not wanting to leave an opportunity for Starsky to change his mind.

Sitting back in his chair staring at the telephone, Hutch began to feel uncomfortable with the deception. But any straightforward attempt to get Starsky to leave the house would surely have been met with refusal.

Hutch wondered how on earth he could have believed that a leave would be a good thing for Starsky. This past week since Starsky had been forced into this unwelcome 'vacation' had been disastrous. Without work to provide motivation to get up and leave the house every day, Starsky had turned into a hermit. He went nowhere. He did nothing. Hutch stopped by every night to check on him and bring some food, since he knew there was none in the house. Starsky would tolerate his company for a short time and then he would declare that he was tired and was going to bed.

Hutch stood up and put on his jacket. He glanced at his watch, noting that it would be about noon by the time he got home. Starsky would be there by then. He prayed he'd believe Hutch's excuse when he got there. Hutch peered his head into Dobey's office on his way out.

"I'm going, Cap."

"Good luck, Hutch. I hope it works."

"Well, at least he's out of the house. Let's just hope I can keep him there for a while."

"Let me know how it works out. I'll see you Monday."

"Thanks again, Captain. I appreciate the time off."

"Not a problem. Without your other half, you're not much use to me around here anyway."

Hutch looked into Dobey's knowing eyes and nodded.

Not much use anywhere, he silently added as he made his way out of the office.

~~~~~~~

"Starsky!" Hutch called out as he let himself into the apartment, not wanting to startle him.

Starsky came out from the kitchen looking at Hutch in surprise.

"What are you doing here?"

"I got a reprieve. The flight those London hotshots were supposed to come in on got postponed because of some storm activity over the Atlantic." Hutch was making sure to keep his voice as casual as possible. "Since I'm going to be stuck with them all day Monday instead, Dobey cut me a break and let me take off early today. I tried to call you back, but you had already left. Sorry."

"It's OK," Starsky responded, seeming to accept the story.

"So, was it on?" Hutch questioned innocently.

"Huh?... Oh yeah. You need to be more careful. You're gonna burn your whole place down."

Hutch berated himself for his 'carelessness.' "Damn, that was pretty stupid, huh." He had figured this would all look too suspicious if the oven turned out not to be on. He probably was lucky he didn't burn his place down.

"Thanks for coming and checking it for me. I really appreciate it."

"Well, it wasn't exactly like I had to make room in my busy schedule," Starsky noted dryly.

Getting out, even for this short trip had obviously done him some good. He had actually changed out of that old tee shirt and ripped pair of sweat pants that had been the extent of his wardrobe this week. He was showered and shaved, and his skin didn't have that pallor that it was taking on in his stuffy apartment.

"Looks like we're both at loose ends today," Hutch stated matter of factly. "Why don't we make the best of it? I think we should go down to the Rialto and catch the matinee. We can stuff ourselves with popcorn and candy and laugh at all the working stiffs who are cooped up in their offices missing the good life."

Was that a trace of a smile in Starsky's eyes? Hutch knew how much his partner always loved going to the movies in the middle of the day. He used to say it was like being a kid and playing hooky. Hutch couldn't even count the number of times Starsky had dragged him into movie theaters on their days off, with a child-like gleam in his eyes and a non-stop dissertation on why the matinee was always better than the evening shows.

"The popcorn tastes better in the day," came the echo from the past. "See, since there's less people, they put more butter on it. They fill the soda higher in the cups too. And the sound in the theater...well that's always better because there aren't a lot of bodies in there clogging up the sound waves."

Hutch couldn't keep the smile from breaking out on his face at the memories.

"It's been a while," he said, wondering if Starsky's mind was playing the same memories.

Starsky was quiet but the indigo eyes seemed to be looking straight into Hutch. There was something there. He seemed mesmerized by Hutch's smile.

"Yeah, it has," Starsky finally responded, a small smile curling the corners of his lips.

Hutch clapped his hands together enthusiastically. "So, what'd you say? Should we go for it?" Hutch tried hard not to look like his whole world was riding on the answer.

Starsky's face reflected an internal battle. After a few of the longest minutes in history, he finally nodded and replied quietly.

"Sure. Why not?"

Hutch felt his heart soar. He was certain he was grinning like an idiot, but he didn't care.

"Great. That's great. We'll go then. I just want to go change. I need to put on a heavier sweater. It's getting chilly out there. I'll be right back."

Tripping over his own feet as he turned, Hutch stumbled into the bedroom laughing. He went to the dresser and opened the drawer, pulling out a heavy brown wool sweater. It had been getting increasingly cooler outside...it felt as though a storm might well be brewing, but Hutch didn't care. For the first time in a long time he could see something beyond the clouds.

As he tugged the sweater over his shirt, Hutch actually started to hum. When was the last time he looked forward to something? Probably somewhere around the last time he and Starsky had done anything social together, which felt like an eternity ago.

Walking into the bathroom to take care of a few essential needs, Hutch recalled how he had never been particularly fond of going to the movies. But he always went because Starsky loved it and his pure joy never failed to rub off on Hutch, causing him to have a good time in spite of himself. Today, going to the movies seemed like the best thing a person could do in life.

It had always been like that. Even things he dreaded doing seemed not so awful when Starsky was by his side. He remembered the time Starsky went with him to the dentist, sitting next to him in the waiting room, joking and teasing and distracting Hutch with some unending story about aliens infiltrating the Earth through the water supply. Hutch still hated the dentist, but he never failed to smile when he thought about that day.

There were so many things that Hutch had come to miss about Starsky these past months: the crazy stories, the heartfelt laugh, the ceaseless chatter, the childish pouts when he didn't get his way...the puppy dog look that ensured that didn't happen often...the silent exchanges when it seemed as though they could read each other's thoughts, the smile that could light up the darkest day....

There was an ache inside of Hutch, the depth of which he'd only allowed himself to partially recognize. He had never felt more alone in his life than he had these past few months. But as he walked from the bathroom and back towards the living room, he allowed himself to feel a glimmer of hope.

"I heard they opened that new burger place over by the theater." Starsky was sitting on the couch with his back towards Hutch as he approached. "Maybe we can try it out after the movie?"

Not receiving a response, Hutch moved closer to the couch. "Hey, did you hear what I said? I was thinking we could..." Hutch stopped short beside the couch, feeling as though he had crashed into a brick wall when he saw the expression on Starsky's face. It was cold and impenetrable. Hutch's eyes drew down, seeing the book Starsky was clutching in his hand. He felt his heart sink.

"What's wrong?" he tried, hoping he was overreacting.

"Wrong?" Starsky answered coolly. "Well, I don't know. Maybe I can check this interesting piece of reading material and find out."

Oh shit.

Hutch felt the color drain from his face as he looked at the book: Depression's Dark Grip: A Guide To Understanding Depression's Hold On The People You Love.

How the hell did Starsky find that? Thinking furiously, he remembered he had been reading it on the couch last night before he fell asleep. He had a habit of sliding books down between the cushions when he was reading on the couch.

"You should be more careful with your fancy books, Hutch. I sat on this one. Nearly ripped it. But you don't need to worry. It's all intact." Starsky fanned through the pages. "Fascinating subject matter. You're quite the intellectual, aren't you?"

The voice and face remained impassive. Hutch didn't have a clue what Starsky was thinking, but his intuition told him it wasn't good.

How the hell could I have been so careless?

Hutch had bought the book a few days ago in a desperate attempt to find some answers. But how could he have left it stuffed down in the couch like that?

"Well, you know me. I like reading about a lot of things." He tried to keep his voice casual.

"That's true," Starsky replied with no emotion in his voice. But something unsettling was lurking behind his eyes. "You sure are into this one, though. I mean you've even got stuff underlined in here." He opened to one of the pages and began to read aloud. "'Depression is more isolating and socially devastating than any other chronic illness. As the joy in living dissipates, a depressed person pushes away the warm blanket of companionship and intimacy, often leaving the people in his life to feel as cold, alone and helpless as he does. Symptoms of depression include headaches, loss of appetite, changes in sleep pattern, distractibility, withdrawal from normal social activity and personal interaction, poor concentration, feelings of sadness, emptiness hopelessness, remorse, guilt...'"

"Give me the book," Hutch demanded, reaching for it. Starsky pulled it back and stood, moving away from the couch.

"Wait, we haven't gotten to my favorite part yet." He flipped the page and began to read again. "'Depressed people often shut themselves off from the people in their lives. It is important to help find ways to bridge those gaps. Some suggestions that might prove helpful include taking off from work to spend an afternoon together...having lunch...taking in a movie...'" Starsky closed the book and looked straight at Hutch, voice icy. "You sure do your homework."

Hutch took a deep breath, trying to calm his rising pulse. He needed to keep a clear head if he was going to handle this properly.

"You've got this all wrong. I don't know what you think...."

"It doesn't really matter what I think does it? You're the one with all the answers. You're the one with the fancy psychiatrist books. You're the one who's decided I'm crazy!" Starsky flung the book at Hutch, his voice trembling with suppressed rage. "Maybe you can do a study of me. Write your own book. Become some kind of big shot Ph.D. or something!"

"Starsky, will you listen to me! I'm not trying to study you. And I sure as hell don't think you're crazy!"

"Really? Why not? Didn't I score high enough on one of those test things in there? Here, give it back to me. I'll take the test for you. I'm sure I can get a higher score in person."

Starsky went to retrieve the book which was laying on the floor, but Hutch got to it first and picked it up.

"Will you forget about the damn book and listen to me. I didn't buy it to analyze you. I was worried about you. You're going through a lot of things that I don't understand. I wanted to help. I thought I could find some answers in here, but I'd rather get them from you. The problem is, you won't talk to me."

"So if I don't talk to you, you just take it upon yourself to decide what's wrong with me...what to do for me!" Starsky's right hand was balled up in a fist and his face was heated red. The anger in his voice switched to mocking sarcasm. "'Let's go catch a movie Starsk'...and I fell for it, too. Does the book list stupid and gullible as symptoms too?"

Hutch began to respond, but had to stop himself. The pent-up hostility emanating from his partner was fierce. But there were other, more guarded emotions concealed behind his eyes: betrayal, frustration, shame...fear. Hutch fought to keep his own emotions from overtaking him as he spoke in a deliberate, non-threatening tone.

"I do not think you're stupid. I asked you to go to the movies because I wanted to go to the movies with you, not because of anything written in some book. I think maybe we need to both just calm down and talk about this."

"Don't talk to me like that!"

"Like what?"

"Don't use that condescending 'talk to me like I need to be handled' voice. Who do you think you are? Dr. Depression and his know-it-all books?"

"I'm sorry. I wasn't trying to do that."

"See, you're doing it again."

Hutch felt his patience slipping.

"Just exactly how is it that I should talk to you?"

"How about honestly? Or would that be too hard? It's easier to sneak around behind my back trying to analyze me and setting me up with phony oven stories."

"You can't handle honest," Hutch snapped, wounded by the unfair attack.

"Try me," Starsky growled tauntingly.

"Fine. You want honesty, here's honesty. It freaked me out to find you standing there oblivious to a knife sticking out of your hand and blood pouring out all over the place!"

"You think I did that on purpose?" Starsky gasped, horrified.

"No, I don't!" Hutch countered forcefully. "But that doesn't make it any less serious. You talk about honesty, but you're the one who forces us both to walk around acting like nothing's wrong when the truth is nothing's right."

Starsky turned away from him then, his hand held against his temple. Hutch sensed that there was something registering on his face that he didn't want Hutch to see. His body was so tightly held that it made Hutch tired just watching him.

Why the hell can't you just let some of it out? What are you so afraid I'm going to see?

Hutch moved closer to him, softening his voice. He had to make Starsky see that he wasn't the enemy.

"I don't want to fight with you, babe. And I'm sorry if anything I've done has made you more upset. But something is really wrong here. I know you see that."

"Yeah, I do," came the quiet response. Starsky turned slowly back around, his face once more a mask, his voice dispassionate. "But whatever's wrong is my problem and I'll deal with it the way I see fit. It's not for you to analyze or figure out or fix. So, you can stop buying books and you can stop hatching schemes. If I'm crazy, it's my business. I would appreciate it if you let it stay my business and leave me the hell alone."

Starsky couldn't have hurt him more if he had plunged that knife into his flesh. He was being dismissed; being told in no uncertain terms to 'leave me the hell alone.' In some part of his consciousness, Hutch recognized it as a defensive tactic. Starsky couldn't deal with the things that were going on inside of him, so he cut off the one person who would keep insisting he try. But knowing that didn't make the pain any less severe.

Immobilized by the torment, he watched mutely as Starsky walked out the door.

~~~~~~~

The sky had grown increasingly darker throughout the day. By 6:00, it had opened up to emit a fierce barrage of rain. Thunder roared to announce the storms arrival. Huggy Bear glanced out the widow of his bar, seeing the dark, wet pall blanket the streets.

Inside, things weren't any brighter. A dark cloud of gloom hung over the bar in the person of one David Michael Starsky. He had been there for most of the afternoon, quietly consuming one beer after another. Huggy had been surprised to see him. It had been at least a month since he had been here, and that time his visit was only due to Hutch's cajoling.

Huggy knew about the hand...knew that Starsky had been forced to take a leave. Still, the last place Huggy expected to see him in the middle of the day was sitting at his bar downing a countless supply of beer.

As the afternoon progressed, Huggy grew reluctant to keep fulfilling the request to 'bring me another one.' But he had the strong sense that Starsky was determined to get drunk, and if he didn't do it here, he would simply do it someplace else. At least if he was here, Huggy could keep an eye on him.

And keep an eye he did, noting each mood change with growing concern. Starsky had entered seething with barely contained fury. The initial conversation was brief and acerbic.

"Hey Starsky, how ya doing'?"

"It's none of your business. It's none of anybody's damn business how I'm doing. Just bring me a beer."

That brought an end to the repartee for a while. Huggy laid off, busying himself around the bar until about an hour had passed. The mood had grown more sullen then, as the anger turned inward.

"Sorry for biting your head off, Huggy. You should probably be more careful about the kind of people you let in here."

"I got no complaints."

"Not yet. Another hour of me might change that."

Several more beers brought another change. Some of the guard started to slip and carefully contained emotions started to seep out.

"I did it again, Huggy. No matter what I do, I seem to screw it up. I screwed up with Hutch big time today."

"We always hurt the ones we love."

Especially the ones we can't admit we love.

There was a time when Huggy believed that Starsky would eventually come clean with Hutch. Now he wasn't so sure. The amount of losses the curly-haired detective had had to withstand made him understandably wary of taking risks with what he had left.

So many times Huggy had wanted to confront Starsky with what he had concluded years ago. That time after Terry's death was when confirmation was brought to the long-held suspicion. Huggy clearly remembered Starsky's drunken discourse after that tragedy.

"She was so good, Hug. Such a good person. She really knew me. She knew the truth about me and she didn't hate me for it. I let her down in so many ways. And now she's dead and I'm still letting her down because I don't have the guts to deal with the truth like she wanted me to." Head hung low, Starsky had mumbled the rest nearly imperceptibly...nearly. "I can never tell him. I can't tell him the truth or lose him too."

Questions flooded Huggy's thoughts. Should I have forced him to talk about it by confronting him with it? Would that have given him an outlet, or would it have just caused him to close down and resent the intrusion?

Huggy had never been big on intrusion. The few people in his life he held close, he would do anything for. But he never felt comfortable pushing things that weren't asked for. Whether that was the best way to handle things or not, he wasn't sure. It just was how it was.

This certainly wasn't the time to back Starsky into any corners anyhow. There were just too many things going on here. He was way too fragile emotionally. While Huggy felt certain that the long-held, long-denied feelings for Hutch played a significant part in this, there were many other factors at work here as well. The potent combination of all those factors had clearly pushed Starsky to the brink.

Starsky sat now, looking physically and emotionally beaten. His entire body was sagging forward into the bar and his skin had a yellowish hue. He was nursing the bandaged hand to his chest.

"Hand hurting?" Huggy questioned with concern.

"A little," Starsky responded with a shrug, as though he didn't really care.

"Didn't they give you something for that?"

"Yeah."

A look crossed Starsky's eyes that caused Huggy pause. An alarming thought crossed his mind then.

"You take any of them today?"

"Just a couple."

"Jesus, Starsky!" Huggy reprimanded as he pulled the beer bottle away. "You're sitting here drinking like a fish and you're on pain medication? Are you crazy?"

"That seems to be the consensus today," Starsky responded in a voice so heavy with despair it smothered Huggy. Hopeless, damp eyes bore into him then.

"Am I crazy, Huggy?"

"No, man," Huggy assured softly as he reached to pat the trembling forearm. "You're just hurting. You're just hurting real bad."

"I don't know how to make it stop anymore," the exhausted voice croaked. "And I just keep hurting Hutch. I know he wants to help, but he can't help. Why won't he see that?"

"Because it'd be easier for him to cut off his own arm than to see you in pain?"

"I'm not good for him, Huggy. I'm just going to let him down. I've already let him down in so many ways. Sooner or later I let them all down: Dad, Terry, Nicky...Mom. I tried to be what I was supposed to be for them, but I blew it. And now Hutch. He wants me to be the Starsky he knows...the partner...the friend...but I'm not him. I can't be him anymore."

"You just need to be who you are. The people who love you will accept that."

Starsky's head slid down until the side of his face rested on his forearm. His voice grew thick with shame and sorrow, each sentence punctuated with heavy gulps of air.

"I think I was trying to hurt him, Huggy. I don't want his pity and I don't want him to see me as some head case. And I was so mad at me...and I couldn't find the right words...and it was all so humiliating...and I knew I couldn't make him understand...it all got twisted up and then I'm saying all these cruel, hurtful things...and in a way it felt good...but then it felt so horrible..." The color completely drained from his face...even his lips were pale. "Ah jeez, I'm gonna be sick...."

Huggy rushed to the other side of the bar to help him up. He staggered woozily for a moment then headed off purposefully towards the men's room.

When he emerged, he wasn't walking straight. Huggy went to his side and helped him over to a booth.

"Take it easy, Starsky. You've got too many things working through your system."

"I need to go home. I gotta go." He started to stand, but Huggy pushed him back down.

"You're in no shape to be getting anywhere on your own."

Starsky ran a hand through his hair as eyes hung half closed.

"I'm just tired. I want to go home and go to bed." The voice had become more insistent and Huggy didn't want to argue with him.

"OK, OK. You just sit here and get your sea legs back while I go call you a cab."

Huggy got up and went to the back room, trying to decide what he should do: should he call the cab? Should he take him home himself to make sure he got there? Should he call Hutch? What would Starsky's reaction be to any of those things? He stood at the phone for several minutes running the options through his mind.

"Huggy, you better come quick." Gina, his waitress, had rushed into the room with a worried look on her face. Heart sinking, Huggy rushed after her to see what had happened.

~~~~~~~

The phone began to ring, disturbing the silence in the darkened room. Hutch sat motionless on the couch where he had been for most of the afternoon. He glanced apathetically toward the phone, unable to find the energy or the interest required to pick it up. By the seventh ring, however, a disconcerted feeling began to nag at the corner of his mind. By the ninth ring, he had reached over to answer it.

"Hello."

"Oh man, I'm glad you're there."

"I don't really feel like talking right now, Huggy. Maybe tomorrow."

"Hutch, wait! This is important."

"What is it?"

"It's Starsky. He's been here all day. He's in a bad way, Hutch."

Hutch fought the urge that instinctively raced through him.

"Starsky doesn't want my help. He made that real clear this afternoon."

"Well he may not want it, but he sure as hell needs it."

"I don't get it. Weren't you the one getting on me for playing protector?"

"Yeah. And I'm also the one who makes it a policy not to stick my nose into friend's lives when I'm not invited. But all of those lofty edicts don't seem so noble when a friend who's been mixing booze with pain pills all afternoon curls up in a ball on the ground in my alleyway and refuses to move."

Hutch was out the door without even hanging up the phone.

~~~~~~~

Heavy drops of rain pelted his face as he stepped out the back door. Ignoring it, Hutch moved quickly through the alley, heading towards the large trash bin against the wall. He paused when he got there, a queasy wave shaking his stomach.

There on the ground, huddled in the corner, was his rain-soaked partner. Pressed against the wall, arms wrapped around his knees -- which were pulled up to his chest -- Starsky rocked back and forth with a vacant look in his eyes. The dark curls were matted down against his head, clothing plastered to his body, as the harsh rain showered down upon him.

"Shit," Hutch murmured to himself as the sight unbalanced his equilibrium. "Go real easy with him, Hutch," Huggy's voice intoned. Hutch had gotten the distinct impression that Huggy knew more about what was going on with his partner then he let on. But, anxious to get outside, Hutch hadn't bothered to ask the countless questions that were swirling through his mind.

Now, faced with what was obviously a crisis situation, Hutch was uncertain how to proceed. Angry, defensive warnings to ‘leave me the hell alone' echoed in his mind, warring with a gut instinct to just wrap the sopping waif in his arms and never let go.

Despite the hurtful words exchanged this afternoon and all the ways that Starsky had been pushing him away, Hutch knew that deep down his partner needed him. There was no way he was backing off now, no matter what Starsky said or did. He only hoped he could keep his cool this time and not let his own emotions get the best of him as he had been doing lately. That was a tall order, though, considering that the sight before him had already caused tears to well in his eyes.

Cautiously, he moved forward, crouching down in front of the quivering form. As he tried to decide what to say, a soft voice whispered to him, barely audible over the rain.

"Hi, Hutch."

"Hey partner," Hutch responded gently. "What's going on?"

"I don't know," was the unsteady reply.

"Well, why don't you come in out of the rain and we can talk about it?"

Starsky shook his head, causing droplets from his curls to roll into his eyes. "I can't."

"Why not?"

"It's just...Oh God, Hutch...everything's so mixed up."

"I know buddy," Hutch assured as a sharp pain pierced his heart.

"It's like all these things and I can't stop thinking about them, but they don't all make sense."

"What kind of things? Tell me." Hutch kept his voice steady and soothing amidst the insistent clatter of rain.

"Like my dad," Starsky croaked, "and like how he was like Nicky in a lot of ways...at least what I remember...maybe I don't remember...maybe it's just what people said..." Starsky's eyes glazed over as though he were looking inward.

"What did they say?" Hutch asked as he pushed his dripping hair out of his face. He had to keep drawing him out, not let him slip too far inside himself.

"He liked to cut corners...do things the fast way...didn't want to wait for things to happen...too much ambition...had to get ahead fast...I used to hear them talk. If you're real quiet, people will say anything in front of you. Like you're not even there. Like if your mouth isn't working, your ears can't be either." Starsky stopped again as a violent shiver ran through him.

Hutch knew he had to be freezing. He wanted to get him up off that wet ground and indoors where he could be warm and safe. Hutch's own clothes were nearly soaked through now, clinging to him uncomfortably. Yet he sensed this wasn't the time to interrupt, despite his concern for his partner's health.

"He wanted to make detective," Starsky continued as the rain trailed across his lips. "But they say he was hot dogging it...taking stupid risks...taking stupid risks because he wasn't willing to share the collars...'he got himself killed with his own blind ambition'...that's what they'd say behind my mother's back...."

"Oh jeez. Starsk." Hutch's voice cracked. Starsky rarely talked about his father, and the few things that he did say never even hinted at this. It explained some things about Nicky, though.

"Do you know I didn't cry when he died? Not once. And all the years since then, I've never cried a tear for him...I couldn't..." The voice faltered then, but Starsky drew his legs up closer to himself and forced out more words. "I couldn't let Mom and Nicky down. I had to be strong for them...I just pushed it down so deep...I was a little boy standing in that cemetery pushing it all down so hard...the tears...the grief...the fear...and...."

"And what?" Hutch encouraged, knowing he had to, despite how hard it was.

Starsky's face grew twisted, eyes narrowing in the dimness of the alley. His fingernails on his right hand were digging into the soaked-through bandage on his left. He spoke hesitantly, as if each word required an enormous push to get out.

"I...was...so...angry. How...could he...do that...leave us like that...leave me to do everything...to take over?" His head dropped down as his voice scratched against his throat. "And I couldn't do it. I kept trying to do it right, but it was never enough...."

"Starsk." Hutch spoke tenderly as he reached out to dislodge the fingers from tearing at the bandage. "You did the best you could. You didn't do anything wrong."

Starsky's head lifted, his face turning up into the pelting drops of water. He glanced around the alley with eyes that saw more than the dim surroundings before him.

"This reminds me so much of that back lot behind the old warehouses. Mom always told us never to play there, but Nicky was so stubborn."

Hutch had no idea where this was going, so he stayed quiet, waiting stalwartly as heavy drops of rain made rivulets down his back.

"I went along because he would've gone anyway. I couldn't let him go by himself. There was this pile of long metal tubing. Nicky liked to walk across it...but he slipped that day. His leg got wedged between the tubes and he was stuck. I couldn't pull him out. The pipes were too heavy."

The rocking motion increased as Starsky's voice became accelerated, speaking in breathless spurts.

"I wanted to get help but he was too scared...wouldn't let me leave him there alone...he kept crying and screaming...I kept talking to him and trying to calm him down...and it got so late and so dark...I didn't know what to do. And Nicky kept holding my hand so tight and begging me not to leave...but it was so dark and scary there...I was so scared, but I didn't show it. I didn't want Nicky to be afraid. I couldn't leave him there all alone, but we were going to die back there; I just knew it. It was so, so scary...and dark...and cold...and Nicky was going to die...and it was all my fault..."

Huge blue eyes reflected the terror of that little boy so vividly that Hutch felt he was in that alley with Starsky.

"Finally, Mom and Uncle Leo found us. Leo got his two friends and they got Nicky loose...and he was so hysterical...and she was so relieved...and she cradled him and held him and rocked him...."

Starsky's body was shivering non-stop now, and it seemed to be from more than just the cold dampness of the rain. His drenched appearance made it impossible to distinguish, but Hutch felt sure that some of the moisture running down his face was caused by tears. His own tears had been mixing with the water on his cheeks for some time now.

"And I didn't cry." The voice was almost non-existent. "And I didn't tell how scary it was...and she didn't hold me or cradle me or..." The voice stopped, unable to emit anymore sound.

In his mind's eye, Hutch saw that scared little boy so clearly: the stoic face that masked the pain and refused to crack; the small shoulders held back hard to keep from sagging; a need for comfort so great that it had to be buried down deep or it would have annihilated him with its oppressiveness. A little boy standing alone, unable to recognize or voice the pain that no one seemed to see.

Hutch moved beside his partner, sitting down in the puddle against the cold, hard wall, and pulled both that little boy and the man he had become into his arms and held them fiercely. Hutch's arms wrapped so tightly around the drenched, shaking body that, had he wanted to, Starsky would have been unable to move. But there wasn't even a trace of resistance in his arms. Starsky sagged into him like dead weight, as though everything inside of him had just come crashing down in a heavy heap.

"It's OK to be scared now," Hutch whispered as he held fast. "it's OK."

Hutch wasn't sure how long they sat like that. He became accustomed to the feel of water saturating him to the core. But the shivers in the body he held had become more pronounced and he knew he had to get Starsky warm and dry.

"Come on, buddy," he said into the wet curls. "We're going home."

~~~~~~~

Hutch had wondered as he pulled up to Venice Place if Starsky was going to protest. He had made this decision inwardly, knowing that if he had taken Starsky to his own place, there would have come that moment when he asked Hutch to leave and he couldn't face that. At least here, he could remain by his side, certain that he was safe.

As it turned out, Starsky accepted the decision compliantly. Even if he hadn't, he wasn't in much shape to get anywhere else on his own. The combination of alcohol and pain medication, coupled with the physical and emotional exhaustion, had left him drained and not cognizant of much going on around him.

It took several long minutes to guide and support the soggy, uncoordinated body up the stairs and into the apartment. Starsky was still shivering beneath the two heavy blankets Huggy had thrown around him on their way to the car. As he helped Hutch pull Starsky's spent form up off the wet ground in the alley, Huggy, who had watched with concern from the back door, tried to insist that they go upstairs to at least dry off a bit. However, Hutch had a strong need to get Starsky home, though he wasn't sure if that was more for his partner's sake or his own.

The struggle up the stairs took its toll on Starsky, what little color left draining from his face as he beseeched Hutch urgently.

"Hutch..."

There had been a similar plea in the car, followed by Starsky's insistence that they pull over. Hutch did so just as the wave of nausea hit and Starsky threw the door open to release the contents of his stomach onto the rain-soaked ground.

Starsky pulled away from him now, stumbling toward the bathroom. Hutch followed him there, watching his partner drop to his knees in front of the toilet and vomit again. Maneuvering behind him, Hutch went to the cabinet and pulled out a washcloth that he moistened in the sink. When Starsky had finished, Hutch flushed the toilet then wiped his partner's face and mouth. He ran some cold water into a Dixie cup and handed it to Starsky, who rinsed the water through his mouth then spat into the toilet.

"That it?" Hutch questioned as he took the empty cup.

Starsky nodded weakly, then his head lobbed to one side, eyes half closed. Hutch eased him down fully onto the floor, propping his head against the wall.

"OK. Just stay right here and take it easy a second. If you feel sick again, just lean over here. I'll be right back, OK?"

Starsky nodded, again, eyes closing fully as he rested his head against the wall.

Hutch proceeded quickly, peeling his saturated jacket and shirt from his body as he moved through the house. He picked the phone receiver up from the couch and replaced it in its cradle before picking it up again to dial. As promised, he called to assure Huggy that they had arrived home intact, while he kicked off his shoes and removed the rest of his dripping clothes.

After he hung up the phone, he gathered the wet clothes up and tossed them on the floor in the kitchen. He moved to the closet, pulling out a small stack of towels which he placed on the bed when he entered the bedroom. Hutch picked up the top towel and dried his flesh haphazardly as he moved purposefully about the room. He took down the extra blanket, then searched through his drawers for the warmest pajamas he could find, all the while keeping an ear tuned towards the bathroom monitoring for any sound of distress. Locating the heavy flannel pajamas that he hadn't used since his last trip to Duluth a couple of years ago, he placed them on top of the pile of towels. He threw some heavy socks on top of that, then grabbed a pair of jeans off the chair and stepped into them. After fastening his jeans, Hutch took the towel he had been using and mussed it through his hair, the thick terry cloth soaking up the moisture from the thin blond strands quickly. When he was finished, he dropped the towel to the floor, picked the pile of towels and bed clothes up, and made his way back to the bathroom. In all, he had been gone for about six minutes.

Starsky was exactly where he had left him, seeming not to have moved. A small puddle was forming around him caused by the run off from his hair and clothes. Hutch looked at him for a moment. He looked as though he had been dragged through the ringer, wet, aching muscles sagging in depleted submission. He was still shivering as he clutched the wet blanket around himself. His face was pale and drained. The dark curls were flat and tangled, dispensing drops of water that made their way into the closed eyes. The sight of him broke Hutch's heart...yet warmed it at the same time. A mixture of protectiveness, empathy and love swelled within Hutch as he swore to himself with renewed determination that he would find some way to get Starsky through this. Crouching down in front of him, Hutch placed a gentle hand on his shoulder.

"Come on, partner. We've got to get you out of these wet clothes."

Starsky stirred, eyes opening as he looked at Hutch. The huge blue eyes were tainted with red, but they were unguarded, clearly displaying the torment that lurked beneath them.

"I don't think I can, Hutch," he responded hoarsely. "Everything's spinning...my body feels so heavy...."

"Don't worry," Hutch reassured. "I'll take care of the hard stuff. Just let me, OK?" The need evident in that plea caught Hutch off guard.

Whether it was the alcohol or the pain pills or just the sheer exhaustion, Hutch wasn't sure, but the defensive walls that Starsky had been keeping between them lowered. Hutch felt his heart soar at the acquiescent nod, feeling a sense of purpose that had been missing for so long.

Adroitly, Hutch set about to peel the layers of wet clothing off his partner's shivering body. He moved quickly, bringing the towel to the damp chest and arms as soon as they were free of the cumbersome clothes. Goosebumps erupted across the exposed skin as the tremors increased. Starsky's skin felt so cold to the touch. Hutch wrapped the towel around him and rubbed his hands up and down his partners covered arms in an effort to get some circulation going. After a few minutes, he removed the now soggy towel and wrapped a dry one around Starsky's shoulders. He brought a smaller towel up to the mop of unruly curls. Unlike his own fine hair, it took several passes with the towel to even begin to absorb some of the moisture from his partner's thick mane.

When he had dried the torso as well as he could, Hutch removed the large bath towel and reached for the heavy pajama top. He drew it up over Starsky's arms and shoulders, then fastened the buttons in front. The large top dwarfed his smaller partner, who had lost so much weight these past two months. With his hair a mess of disorderly curls, and the baggy pajama top enveloping him, he looked like a little lost urchin. Hutch couldn't help but smile as he reached down to roll the sleeves up over the hidden hands. He noted how wet and dirty the bandage was and knew that was his next order of business after he finished getting Starsky changed.

Starsky's eyes kept drifting shut during Hutch's ministrations. However, he struggled to help by shifting and lifting when necessary. Still, Hutch knew he wouldn't be able to finish the task with Starsky down on the now very wet floor. Hutch turned and reached for the soaked-through Adidas and pulled them off, along with the sodden socks. That done, he braced his hands below his partner's armpits.

"OK buddy, I need you to help me out here. We've gotta get you up. Think you can handle that?"

"Piece of cake," Starsky mumbled without an ounce of conviction.

"Don't worry. I've got you. Just go with it. On three. One...two...threeeee...."

With that, Hutch hauled him up to his feet and Starsky tried to get his shaky legs to hold there. Hutch leaned him back against the wall and supported a good deal of the weight, as the fingers of Starsky's right hand dug into Hutch's arm.

"You OK?"

"Yeah...just...a little...woozy."

"I know. Just hold on. I'll hurry."

Hutch quickly unfastened the clasp, then tugged the zipper of the pants. Leaning his shoulder into Starsky's waist to keep him supported, Hutch bent down and held the waistband, dragging the briefs and the saturated pants down Starsky's legs. The water-logged denim was heavy and difficult to slide. Hutch had to peel it inch by inch. With his shoulder still pressed into Starsky and the bending required to strip down the jeans, the side of Hutch's face was in dose proximity to his partner's groin.

He wasn't surprised to find the long, thick cock at half mast, with both the pressure from the pants and exposure to the cool air assaulting it with stimuli. What he was surprised by, however, was his reaction to it. He found his eyes drawn to the alluring sight. It wasn't as if he had never seen his partner naked before...he had, many times. But for some reason, at this moment, the sight stirred something deep in his own body and he felt a twitch of response in his own balls.

"Oh God..." Starsky moaned above him in a voice that sounded pained. That immediately snapped Hutch back from his distraction, realizing he had just been frozen there hovering, his shoulder digging into Starsky's abdomen. He must have hurt him in some way.

Hutch forced himself back into action, pulling the pants down around Starsky's ankles and then stepping on them to provide leverage so Starsky could pull his feet out.

"Sorry buddy. I didn't mean to hurt you. Just pull your leg out...we're almost finished."

Starsky did as he was asked, then stood quietly as Hutch patted the thick towel along his damp flesh. Hutch pushed the disconcerting thoughts from his mind as he quickly dried off his partner then drew the pajama bottoms up.

As he fastened the snap at Starsky's waist, he spoke softly. "There we go. Now let's go get you under the covers so you can get warm."

Starsky's eyes opened and stared into his for a long moment. It was almost the same as that look in the car...the look that haunted Hutch even in his dreams. Hutch knew he could easily become lost in that look. Therefore, it was he this time who broke the connection

"Come on, easy does it." He wrapped an arm around Starsky's waist and walked him into the bedroom. He sat him down on the edge of the bed then went back to the bathroom. He retrieved the socks, placing them on Starsky's cold feet when he returned. Then he propped the pillows up against the headboard and guided his partner to the head of the bed to lean back against them.

"Here, you need to sit up for a few minutes so I can change that bandage. I don't want that wound to get infected."

Starsky didn't respond, but he leaned back into the pillows obediently as Hutch drew the blanket up to his waist. Hutch went back to the bathroom to retrieve scissors, bandages, gauze and tape. When he returned, he sat on the edge of the bed beside a dozing Starsky and lifted his left hand into his lap. Starsky's eyes opened then, and they watched Hutch intently as he removed the tattered bandages and redressed the wound.

Just as Hutch was taping the last of the edges down, he felt the tentative fingers of Starsky's right hand drift across the skin of his bare chest. The voice that accompanied them was thick with emotion. "My very own angel of mercy..." Starsky's eyes followed the path of his fingertips along Hutch's chest. "You do look like an angel, you know, Hutch...always did."

Hutch couldn't believe how immediate his body's reaction was to the feather light touch. He tried to ignore it, concentrating on finishing the dressing on Starsky's hand. Once that was done, however, he couldn't help but raise his eyes to Starsky's. His partner's eyes had remained focused on his chest in a glassy stare as the quivering fingers continued to roam his skin.

A violent tremor rocked Starsky then, and he began to shiver with the same intensity as he had in the alley. Concerned, Hutch laid the bandaged hand down on the mattress and stood up, the loss of Starsky's touch sending a lonely ache through his flesh. But there was no time to think about that now. Starsky was freezing.

Hutch picked up the extra blankets and spread them out over Starsky. He pulled the trembling body down onto his back beneath them, then adjusted the pillows accordingly. He sat beside Starsky, rubbing his hands up and down the blanketed form to generate more heat.

It took a few minutes, but the shivering finally lessened. As it did, the exhausted blue eyes could barely remain open any longer. Head falling to the side, he started to give in to his depleted body. But as he did, he whispered the soft words that Hutch could just barely make out.

"Nobody, Hutch...nobody in my whole life ever really took care of me except you...."

"I'll always take care of you, babe," Hutch whispered back as he stroked the soft curls.

The heavy lids opened then, though the strain that it took to do so was evident. The expressive blue pools reached deep into Hutch's soul.

"I love you, Hutch. I love you so much..." And then the lids fell shut again as the prone body yielded to sleep.

"I love you, too," Hutch murmured into the silence as he watched his friend sleep. It wasn't the first time the words had been exchanged between them. Yet it felt different this time...more intense somehow. Hutch tried to figure out why that was...tried to find some words to put to all the strange sensations he had been experiencing tonight. Exhausted himself, however, his own mind went mercilessly blank. He got up and pulled a chair over beside the bed, then sat down on it. He leaned the side of his face down on the mattress, eyes drawn to the sight of his sleeping partner. Maybe tomorrow they could figure this thing out together.

When tomorrow came and he woke up alone in an empty apartment, Hutch no longer knew what to think.

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