Say The Words

Type: Slash
Summary: Starsky tries to get his partner back after Hutch makes a harsh decision for them both.
Episode Related: The Plague

On the way to Hutch's place, Starsky noticed his partner had withdrawn into himself once again.  He had seen it happen more and more often since his leaving the hospital.  In the beginning, he had put it down to the deep physical and psychological trauma Hutch had gone through, seeing his own life almost literally slipping through his fingers in a matter of hours, and knowing there was nothing anybody could do for him; clinging to Starsky's slim chances of finding Callendar and getting the antitoxin developed out of his blood in time.

It had been a living nightmare for the two partners.  It wasn't that they had never endured life and death situations before.  Vic Bellamy being the most sudden and brutal of all of them, when he condemned Starsky's life to a timetable of 24 hours.  But even during those few frantic, terrifying hours, Hutch had been there touching him, holding him in his arms, never being more than a heartbeat away.  But this time, Hutch had been forced to live what could very easily have been the last days of his life alone, isolated from all human contact.  And Starsky could imagine what such a death sentence had done to his highly sensitive friend.

The same sentence had been imposed on Starsky.  Forced to stay away from his partner, unable to offer him any comfort, searching high and low for the only chance of life his friend had.  It had been necessary, but it had torn him apart.

After being administered the serum, Hutch had slept most of the time.  The fever dropped after the first 24 hours, and the next 5 days he had spent more time sleeping than awake.  Starsky made certain that the first thing his partner saw when he was finally able to stay sharp enough for more than 30 seconds at a time, was his curly-haired partner's smiling face.  Unmasked, ungloved, and holding his hands.

Hutch had awakened, blinked a few times, looked around him and finally settled his eyes on him.  He looked down at their clasped hands next, squeezed Starsky's once, and slowly, he withdrew his suddenly trembling hands from Starsky's grasp.

Since that day, Starsky had been getting mixed signs from his partner.  He accepted and seemed to revel in Starsky's outrageous behavior, understanding it was the logical reaction to yet another close call.  Touching had always been the balm to those terrible times.  They craved the healing touch of each other, reminding them this was what everything was about: showing your feelings, showing how much you care, touching and being touched, not only physically, but at every possible level.  Both of them had learnt this lesson very early in their life as cops, when the dangers of their job soon made themselves apparent.

This time, though, there was something different about Hutch.  He sometimes accepted Starsky's touch and other times he shied away from it.  A few minutes ago at the airport, after saying goodbye to Judith, Hutch seemed to have been about to shake off Starsky's hand when he grabbed Hutch's sleeve and dragged him along, saying he was going to get him home and tuck him in.  But a couple minutes later, in the escalator, the weaker man had laid his hand softly on his forearm, although Starsky suspected that Hutch had felt momentarily dizzy and he had touched him to steady himself.  But there was also that affectionate, playful nudge he had given him with his elbow...  Weird, it was very weird.

Something was definitely wrong with Hutch, and Starsky intended to find out what it was, before his big blond thought too much about it and made the wrong decision, for both of them.

The ride to Hutch's place was made in silence.  Hutch was looking out the Torino's window, apparently studying everything they passed.  Starsky understood the feeling.  All the things Hutch was looking at now had been about to not be at all for him.  Before everything returned to normal, those feelings and thoughts would be overwhelming, he knew from bitter experience.  But their intensity would diminish in time.  Nobody could keep such heavy memories in the forefront forever.  They would move on, lesson learned, stronger and wiser than before.  Life would go on, and they'd be able to put this terrible time behind them and take things lightly again.  It wasn't shallow.  It was human.

Starsky parked the Torino right behind Hutch's LTD.  With a sigh, he looked at his partner's apartment.  "Ready to return home?" he asked.

Hutch took a deep breath and stared at the building for a few moments before nodding and opening the car's door.

Starsky followed him in silence.  It almost seemed impossible to believe this was the same man who had been smiling and joking about living 148 years and spending his next vacation in Azerbaijan, or however the place was called, just a few minutes ago.  But this was his partner, and Starsky was more than used to his moods.  Hutch could jump from playful to introspective in the wink of an eye.  He could be teasing you one moment and lecturing you about the meaning of life the next.  Usually, Starsky could follow his partner's train of thought and see what made him jump from one mood to the next.  This time, though, he was completely at a loss.  At least for now.

While climbing the steps to his door, Hutch suddenly swayed.  Immediately, Starsky wrapped his arms around his waist and steadied him, holding him up until he regained his equilibrium again.  To his complete amazement, and dismay, Hutch shook him off a second later.

"I'm fine, Starsk," he said dryly.  "I just lost my balance for a moment.  Damn, these steps are too high for me.  I suddenly felt so weak I almost fell on my back!"  He complained, helpless anger tainting his voice.

"You're lucky your guardian angel is here," Starsky replied cheerfully.  "I wouldn't want you to break that lovely neck of yours."

Hutch snorted as he felt his way over the doorframe, looking for his key.  He opened the door and stepped inside his apartment.  He stood still in the middle of the big chamber, looking around him, getting reaquainted with it again.  He had been convinced he would never step inside his apartment again.  Only Starsky's voice shook him out of his morbid thoughts.  He was handing him his PJ's, his robe and his grandfather's quilt.

"Put them on and I'll prepare something to dinner.  Sit down on the couch, stretch out your shapely legs and cover yourself.  I'll take care of everything else."

"But..."  Hutch immediately complained.

Starsky shook his head stubbornly.  "It's useless to argue with me, Hutch, and you know it.  Now, lie back and relax."

Hutch studied his partner's face for a long moment.  His features suddenly hardened and he shrugged disdainfully.  His eyebrows arched in a face of cold irony that set Starsky's nerves on edge.  Hutch was already shutting him out, placing an invisible but definite barrier between them.

It was then that Starsky realized what was wrong with his partner.

Ignoring the signs for the moment, Starsky headed for the kitchen and started rummaging in Hutch's cupboards, shelves and drawers, looking for all the items he needed to cook a healthy but tasty dinner for the two of them.

A long, satisfied sigh told him that Hutch had just made himself comfortable on the couch.  He was glad for that and prayed for his partner to take a nap, long enough for him to finish cooking.  He didn't feel like engaging Hutch in idle chit-chat now, especially because he knew that his every attempt would be answered in monosyllables or downright silence.  A confrontation was imminent, but he intended to make it as gentle as possible, and preferably with their stomachs full.

It took him less than 30 minutes to prepare dinner and set the table to his liking.  He even lit a candle on the center of the table, trying to give the kitchen a cozy atmosphere that would mellow his partner's unexpectedly hardened heart.  He missed the kind and gentle man who had become closer to him than his own flesh and blood.  He had ached for Hutch these past few days, and after the hell they had gone through, he longed for them to spend some desperately needed hours reassuring and healing each other through physical contact, as they did every time Lady Death decided to brush them with her cold, icy fingers.  He cursed Hutch for denying them that comfort now, but he knew Hutch was the first victim of his behavior.  And Starsky couldn't blame him.  Hutch's childhood and teenage years had been an emotional desert.  Since Hutch was little, he had been used to licking his wounds alone, never having anyone to turn to.  His parents had taught him to keep a tight rein on his emotions and not display them under any circumstance.  Emotions were frowned upon, they were improper, a sign of weakness.  Feelings confused the mind and led people to make the wrong decisions instead of the logical, practical ones; the decisions that led to success.  Showing one's emotions in public was distasteful.  Manners were everything.  Love was allowed, but only to the extent where it wouldn't interfere with one's duties and obligations.  Appearances were everything.

Starsky didn't know how his partner had survived such a barren environment without becoming a cold, unfeeling machine.  But he thanked God for anyone who had kept that highly sensitive soul intact before trusting it to his loving care.  His heart broke for the little Hutch who had grown up devoid of a warm and loving place to call home, the lonely boy who had wept desperate tears, crying out inside for a little love, for a comforting embrace when sick, sad or just in need.  He regretted to the bottom of his heart all the years of absolute loneliness that beautiful man had endured.

Starsky found himself by Hutch's side, looking down at his sleeping friend and absently sliding his fingers through the silky hair on top of the blond head, desperately feeding his hunger for touch.

He would never forget his first and hopefully last trip to Duluth four years ago, so his partner could say his final goodbye to his grandmother, who had died peacefully in her sleep.  Hutch's family had treated them both like vermin.  Hutch's father had looked down on both of them as if they were bothersome bugs that insisted on buzzing past his refined ears.  They had mostly ignored Starsky or avoided him as much as possible, as if they were embarrassed of such a coarse character daring to step in their royal dominions.  Starsky couldn't care less about what those people could think of him, but the chilly, disdainful way they treated his partner sliced through his heart like a knife.  Even among his kin, Hutch was an outcast.

He had been about to explode several times, whenever their attitude and sharp words had belittled his partner, but Hutch's eyes had always stopped him.  And Starsky realized it wasn't worth it.  Those people could only hurt them if they allowed them to.  Hutch had stopped caring about his folks' opinion of him long ago, and certainly Starsky never aimed to please those creeps who had wounded his partner and made of his childhood and teenage years a world of coldness and rejection.  It didn't matter anymore.  They would only have to endure their glacial eyes and barbed hints for a few hours, before returning to the real world.

When they were about to leave, Hutch's mother had stopped them and asked them to take some of Hutch's stuff from his bedroom with them.  They intended to redecorate the second floor of the mansion and they wanted to get rid of, quote, - all the useless items they had no use for anymore, - unquote.  The useless items in question turned out to be Hutch's awards and trophies both in high school and university, some old clothes, his picture albums, his sports equipments and a few books.  It was as if they were slamming the door to Hutch and his place in their lives on his very face.  Starsky's eyes threw daggers at the elegantly dressed cold-blooded woman, wishing to throttle her with the exquisite pearl necklace she wore.  Hutch cleared his throat then and quietly took the boxes his mother pointed at, asking Starsky to help him get all the things in their rented car.  Once the humiliating task was over, Starsky threw his arm around his partner's shoulders in front of everybody, and in an outrageous display of unashamed affection, he pecked Hutch's cheek, asking him if this was a good time to leave Podland and return to planet Earth.  Hutch spluttered, but managed to maintain a mostly straight face.  Completing the gesture, Hutch threw his own arm around Starsky's shoulders and assured him they would leave immediately at warp speed.  Turning about, the two partners left Duluth and Minnesota for good, feeling closer to each other than they had ever felt up to that moment, if that was possible. 

Hutch never had the chance to mourn his grandmother with his family at the wake, but he mourned her in private, wrapped in Starsky's arms in their hotel room.  And Starsky cried some tears of his own when Hutch, deep in the pain and helplessness of his loss, had moaned the words:  "Starsk, you're all that I've got."  The curly-haired man swore to himself right then and there he would be everything his partner ever needed.

They had never spoken of Hutch's family again.  It became a tacit agreement between them.  And Starsky's family became Hutch's adopted one.

Old memories and longtime suspicions convinced Starsky of just why his partner was behaving like this now.  He felt a chill run up and down his spine when the more than likely possibility of Hutch deciding to close the door on their friendship came to mind.  And something inside him knew that Hutch had already made the decision.

Poor blintz!  Little did he know that David Starsky was more than a match for his stubbornness.  He wasn't going to allow Hutch to shut the door on the most beautiful relationship he'd ever known.  He would die first.

Starsky squatted down by the couch and watched the pale sleeping face he knew even better than his own.  The perfect features twitched all of a sudden and the long body gave a start.  Hutch's face began contorting in what could only be described as sheer terror, and he spasmed under the quilt that covered his lower body.  Reaching out, Starsky grabbed Hutch's upper arm and shook him softly, trying to bring him out of the nightmare that was cornering his partner in his sleep.  "Hutch.  Hey, babe, wake up for me, will ya?," he softly crooned.

He hadn't had a nightmare like this in years.  But lately, this recurrent dream haunted him both sleep and awake, robbing him of the few sparks of sanity he had left.  It had started the night before the morning he awoke with the first sympthoms of the plague.  That morning, the sight of his partner's nickname fondly written on the glass had chased away the cold, icy tendrils of thought that had insidiously begun to take root within him.  He had rejected them flat at first, laughed at them and their futile, pathetic attempts at freezing a heart that Starsky's affection had revived to love and warmth years ago.  They were invincible together, nothing and no one could stand against them.  They were a team, they were inseparable.  They were one.  Even apart.  That precious name written on big red letters was the visible proof of the oath Starsky had taken when they were first partnered together.  Even way before then, almost from the day they met and Starsky elected himself Hutch's chosen brother.

But the next time he fell into a restless, feverish sleep, the nightmare returned; and it kept returning, until it began eroding his defences.  Slowly, painstakingly, taking greedy advantage of his weakness, zeroing in on his every fear and vulnerability.  He resisted, he fought with his every bit of fading strength.  He desperately clung to his only constant in life, the source of his every strength.  But the voice resounded louder and louder in his mind, drowning his own thoughts.  It was a deep baritone, a voice he had ceased to hear long ago.  A voice he thought had no power over him anymore.

He weakly cried out within his mind for the only thing strong enough to defeat that voice.  'Starsky...   Starsk...,' he moaned time and again.

'Your Starsky can't help you, you fool!  He never could!'  the booming voice mocked him.  It seemed to know him intimately, searching within him and bringing to the surface his every fear, every secret terror, every nightmare that had lurked within him, patiently waiting for this moment to come out again and fell on him like a flock of vultures over a dead body.  He had nowhere to run, no place to hide.  He couldn't escape because that voice was deep inside him.  It was looking at him from its ice-blue eyes and blond hair.  The same ice-blue eyes and blond hair that had sired him.  Still, he fought back with all the remaining strength he had.  He would fight until the last drop of life left his body.

'No, NO!  Starsky will find the cure!  Starsky will find Callendar and he'll save me and all the other patients.  But even if he doesn't find him in time to save me, he'll do everything in his power.  He's my friend.  He cares.  He's the only one who's ever cared!  He loves me!'

The voice burst out laughing.  But it was more a bark than a laugh.  It was laughing at him, teasing him.  Belittling his faith in his partner, belittling his every belief.  'Love!' it spat.  'Is that the only thing you can think about, you soft little dupe?  Is that all you've learnt in all these years?  Love's an illusion.  Love's a fairytale.  I raised you to trust yourself and your resources.  To trust your own inner strength and be self-reliant, not a weepy pansy!  No one will ever help you but yourself!  You'll always end up alone, no matter what you do.  You've always been a fool and this is the final result.  You're dying alone like the childish dreamer you always were!'

Hutch ran away in terror, trying to hide from the voice that found him wherever he went.  'No!  Starsky's out there looking for the serum.  But he'll return.  He's saved my life more times than I can count, and he's stood by me every single time I've needed him.  You'll never understand the bond we share.  You never had that capacity!  You never understood my dreams, my hopes, my feelings, and you turned your back on me when you realized I'd never be like you.  But I found Starsky.  He proved to me that all my dreams were possible.  He supported me, he gave me everything you never did!  He's never failed me.  So, don't you ever try to belittle him again in front of me, you bastard!  Don't you ever dare to speak his name!  You can't hold a candle to him!!'

The laughter sounded thunderous now.  Hutch covered his ears and recoiled from the merciless mockery in it.

'Oh, really?  Then, where's your precious Starsky now?  He should be here holding your hand in your last moments.  Because make no mistake about it, Ken, you're dying!  You could have been someone.  You could have been anything you wanted.  And yet, you chose to waste your life and your talent in a job unworthy of you.  Unworthy of any half-intelligent, mildly smart man.  And now you're dying the death your stubborn disobedience deserves.  You're dying, infected with a loser's disease!  This is the life you chose to live.  Well, don't fight it now and abide by it until the end.  Give up and die like the loser you are, alone like a dog in a sterile hospital bed!'

'No, NO!  Stop, stop it!'  Hutch shook his head from side to side, certain he was about to go mad.

'Tell me, where's your Starsky?  Where's your wonderful partner?  Where's that awesome love you two claim to profess each other?  I'll tell you, Ken.  It was all a mirage, an illusion.  It always was.  In the end, when it counts the most, you find yourself alone.  A lesson you should have learnt ages ago!  You're born alone and you die alone.  What more proof do you need to see the wrongness of your choices, the foolishness of your dreams?  You only fooled yourself into believing in this ridiculous brotherhood worthy of the Round Table's tales!  Grow up, Ken!  Face the facts of life once and for all!  Face your own stupidity, face your loneliness and conquer it!  Face the fact that the dreams you always harbored were illusions worthy of a child, not a man!"

Hutch couldn't stand it anymore.  The voice had cornered him and he had no strength left to fight.  He didn't want to believe it.  Everything inside him knew it was wrong.  But he was beginning to see the practicality and the twisted wisdom of those words...  and the easiest way out of his pain.

'Love this deep is always painful.  And no person in their sane mind wants to feel pain.  This agony you're going through is useless, you could have spared yourself this miserable craving for your partner's comfort, for the ludicrous touch of his hand and the anguish you went through when you threw him out when he visited you.  You'd have died in peace, you'd have left everything settled behind you and you'd have gone placidly.  Instead, you made of every single moment you were awake sheer torment because you were crying out for him in your mind, reaching out to the ghostly image of him your brain conjured up.  And what for?  What was the use of such despair?  What did you accomplish?  Nothing, just plain old suffering.  Do you want to go on like this for the rest of your life?  Feeling so deeply and always hurting so much because of it, when your life could be so much easier to live?' 

The voice sounded almost compassionate, almost caring, and Hutch finally nodded to himself, letting those words seep into his being.  He could see the logic in that reasoning.  He was tired of hurting so much because of his overpowering feelings for Starsky; and those nightmarish hours, dying alone in the isolation room, cut off from any human touch, had killed him almost as much as the plague had.

'And what can I do?  He's too deep inside me.  I can't let him down.  I can't...  I won't throw him out of my life.  It'd kill me, and it'd kill him too,' he moaned.

'You only have to tone it down.  Step back, detach yourself from your feelings.  Don't let them take over you.  Stop living in each other's pockets, that isn't healthy.  Live your own life, be yourself.  Stop seeing yourself in relation to your place in that man's life.  You don't need him, Ken.  No real man needs another to be complete.  Every person is independent; only weaklings rely on others, because they're afraid of living or they're incapable of facing the responsibility of their own lives.  Prove to yourself that you're self-sufficient.  Make your own decisions, without subjecting them to others' opinion of you.  Stop looking to others to validate your own existence.  Grow UP!'

Something in Hutch snapped then.  It was as if something or someone had turned off a switch inside him.  He felt a bone-chilling coldness grazing his very soul.  It was so cold it was about to freeze his heart beyond salvation.  Only a sweet breath of warmth in the last moment prevented him from becoming what the voice demanded him to be.

Hutch opened his eyes and blinked several times, trying to clear his head from the horribly vivid nightmare Starsky had just awakened him from.  He shivered at the feel of that gentle hand grasping his upper arm.  But almost instantly, a cold wind surged up from deep inside him and he rejected the loving touch flat.

Starsky seemed to feel it, because he jerked his hand away from Hutch, as if he had touched a barbed wire.

They stared at each other for a little while, as if testing the waters; until finally, Starsky relented, for the moment.

"Ah, dinner's ready," he announced, trying to hide the tremor in his voice.

Hutch arched his eyebrow and looked at the table.  "I see," he nodded, more to himself than to his partner.

When Starsky didn't move, Hutch looked back at him and held out his hand in invitation.  "Shall we, then?"  he said.

Starsky blinked, as if waking up from a dream.  "Oh...  oh, yeah.  Sure," he headed for the table, followed by his suddenly distant partner.

"Lovely,"  Hutch commented, his voice dripping with sarcasm at the sight of the neatly set table.  "Are we celebrating something?" he asked, pointing at the candle.

"Life,"  Starsky answered immediately.  "Friendship and love."

"You sound like a TV commercial,"  Hutch teased sharply.

Starsky winced inside at the mocking tone of Hutch's voice, but he let it pass.

"Food looks delicious, though,"  Hutch seemed as hungry as he sounded.  He quickly sat at the table and grabbed his napkin.

Starsky copied his example and soon enough, both men were demolishing the generous bowl of salad and the cheese and ham sandwiches; two each.  Starsky spread mustard all over both slices of bread before attacking his.  Hutch almost smiled watching it, but he suppressed the smile before it reached his lips.  He concentrated on the food and the brutal task that awaited him: hardening his heart enough to keep his distance from the most important person in his life.  His appetite disappeared the more he succeeded in his efforts.  He had to admit it was easier than he thought.  He only had to remember the voice's words and above all, the endless hours spent alone and dying in that cold isolation room.

"You're awfully quiet.  What's on your mind?"  Starsky asked gently.

"Nothing really.  The usual things," Hutch shrugged.

'I bet,' Starsky thought.  "Wanna talk about it?"  he said instead.

Hutch looked at him suspiciously through slitted eyes, almost as if he was studying a specimen in a laboratory, and Starsky shuddered.  The eyes that watched him weren't his partner's eyes.  They were hard, piercing, judgemental.  They immediately reminded him of the Ken Hutchinson of the first few weeks he had made his acquaintance.  The Ken Hutchinson aloof and hidden behind a brick wall of cold indifference that Starsky had brought down little by little, instinctively feeling the presence of the sensitive, loving man who lay beneath the armor.  His very soul had felt it, and he hadn't stopped until he had brought that person to the surface.  And it had been emotional heaven ever since.  For both.

Apparently, Hutch had decided to revert the process now, and damn him if Dave Starsky was going to allow it.  He would fight tooth and nail, until his last breath.

Something terrible, something way beyond Starsky's comprehension must have happened sometime during the last few days.  Something that had pushed Hutch past his breaking point.  But it didn't matter how unthinkable that horror had been.  His partner was at stake, and Starsky would fight whatever it was as he had never fought before.  No bug, no serial killer, no creep on Earth had ever been more important to Starsky than this unnamed ghost that threatened his best friend's soul.  And it would find more than a match in Starsky.  He was fighting for the two of them, for everything he held dear and cherished more than his own life.

Meanwhile, Hutch seemed to come to a decision, and wiping his mouth on the napkin and putting it on the table next, he took a deep breath.  "Well, now that you ask...," he straightened up in the chair and crossed his arms.  "Starsky, do you think that what we have is normal?"

The question came out so abruptly that it left Starsky with his mouth hanging open and blinking, completely gobsmacked.  "Huh?" he managed to utter.

"I mean," Hutch's gaze turned inwards, looking for the right words to express what he wanted to say.  No matter how far-fetched it was, Starsky was certain Hutch would phrase it perfectly.  That it made any sense at all was still to be seen.  "Don't you think that we've come to rely on each other far too much these past few years?"

It was Starsky's turn to watch his partner suspiciously through slitted eyes.  He could see where this conversation was leading already.  Gritting his teeth, he put on a completely false mask of innocence on his features.  "Sure we've come to rely on each other.  We're partners.  It's the only way to survive in the streets."

"You know that's not really what I meant," Hutch sounded exasperated that his partner was being deliberately obtuse.  "I mean to say that we've become emotionally dependent on each other and we can't function without each other."

"I wouldn't put it that way, Hutch.  Sure, we're dependent on each other, but that never stopped us from doing our duty or living our own separate lives.  If anything, it made us more focused, it gave us an even stronger reason to fight the odds.  That's why we've succeeded time and again."  Starsky finished his words with a heart-stopping smile that tore at the blond's heartstrings.

Hutch felt his very spirit responding to that triumphant smile.  He crushed the feeling unmercifully.  "And you think that's healthy?" he asked.

"Healthy?" Starsky frowned.

"Starsky, we're spending 75% of our time together.  That's not normal, not even for a married couple.  Any person has their own circle of friends, but they also mingle with new people they meet; they have a social life outside their families, closest friends and jobs.  What do we have?  Practically nothing but each other.  We spend ¾ of our time together, and even that time doesn't seem to be nearly enough."  'At least, from my end,' he said in his mind, biting his lower lip.

"And that isn't healthy?" Starsky asked, a bit too calmly.

"No, it's not.  Any psychiatrist would tell you that.  We've come to the point where we're living in each other's pockets, in each other's couches; we can't picture ourselves without each other.  That can be very dangerous.  Such naked dependency can't be good, for either of us."

Starsky crossed his arms, imitating Hutch's gesture, and leaned back in his chair.  "Seems like you gave this a lot of thought.  Are you telling me you wanna mingle with other people?  Okay, fine, what's stopping you?  Go ahead.  But you don't have to lecture me."

"Don't take this the wrong way.  I'm just trying to make a point here.  I had a lot of time to think while I was in the isolation room," Hutch immediately tried to cover his freudian slip, "I realized a couple things I wanna share with you.  I had time to think about where my life was heading.  This illness opened my eyes to some things I had been blind to see."

"For example?" Starsky's eyebrows arched in genuine curiosity.

"I think we're pretty close to losing our identities in each other.  We've become too attached to each other.  There's too much pain whenever...  I think we need some space from each other to find ourselves again, to get some perspective of things."

"No wonder you were delirious most of the time," Starsky muttered to himself.

"What?" Hutch asked.

Starsky's eyes met his across the table and Hutch flinched, visibly surprised.  His partner's look had hardened, as if expecting a physical blow.

"Get to the point, Hutch," Starsky said matter-of-factly.  "Are you saying you wanna shut the door on our friendship?"

Hutch felt as if a fist was squeezing his heart.  "No, I'm not saying that."  He shook his head, trying to look as composed as possible and marveling that his voice wasn't trembling.  "I'm merely saying that maybe we should...  tone it down."

"Tone it down?" Starsky's face looked almost mocking now.

"Yeah, step back a little.  Starsk, it's as if we had become a mirror of each other.  As if we needed the other's existence to validate what we are, even what we feel.  Nothing seems to be real unless the other's there to make it...  good and true.  We're grown up, independent men, buddy.  We don't need each other to such an extent.  We're free to live our own lives, to meet other people, to look for other things.  To find ourselves and our place in the world.  It's as if the other's presence in our lives was holding us back and preventing us from fulfilling everything we're meant to be."

"Ooohhh," Starsky's head moved back.  "That speech sounds suspiciously like lack of commitment to me.  You want out of this partnership and you're hiding it behind all that crock of shit."

Hutch's pale features hardened.  "You know very well that's not true.  And as far as commitment is concerned, I've always been the one kicked out of people's life, not the other way round."

Starsky blinked in total confusion then.  "Are you kicking me out of your life before I kick you outta mine?" He tentatively asked.  Hutch couldn't be in his right mind if he actually thought that.

"No," Hutch stated firmly.  "I know you'd never do that.  I'm saying I need some space to start thinking for myself again.  To stop picturing myself in relation to you."

"Aha!" Starsky exclaimed in triumph.  "We finally came to the heart of the matter.  You stopped saying 'we' and admitted that the problem lies with you."

"Of course the problem lies with me.  I brought up the subject, didn't I?" Hutch tilted his head, his voice sounding mildly patronizing.

"And you think that keeping your distance from me's gonna solve anything?  Do ya think that being alone's gonna save ya from hurting?" Starsky couldn't keep his deep compassion for the wrongness of his partner's convictions out of his words.

Hutch's entire countenance filled with irony and sarcasm.  "We're all ultimately alone, partner.  We're born alone and we die alone.  Life is pain; and disappointment, and death.  Whoever told you differently was a fool."

Starsky set his jaw and reminded himself why Hutch was behaving like this.  "I'd never call my mother a fool, but I'll let it pass, keeping in mind you're not being yourself."  His eyes blazed.

Hutch winced and looked down contritely.  "I just...  I need it, Starsky," he asked in a weak voice.  "I...  I feel I'm losing myself in this partnership.  The closeness we share is suffocating me.  I...  I need to distance myself from us and see if I can function for myself, to be self-reliant again; start depending on my own resources.  One day it might be too late, and we'll be unable to stay away from each other and work as independent individuals, professionally and emotionally.  You may not see it, but there's a huge risk in that, Starsk.  I honestly think it's the best we can do."  Emotionally exhausted, Hutch sighed and leaned back in his chair again, apparently having finished his speech.

Starsky remained sitting straight in his chair, watching his partner with a faraway look and at the same time seeming to reach into Hutch's very soul with it.  At last, he made a smacking sound with his tongue and leaned back in his own chair, gazing at his partner with slightly amused eyes.  "Very neatly exposed," he commended dryly.  He stared at Hutch for another long moment, and the blond man almost fidgeted in his seat at the searing scrutiny.

"Then...  do you understand me?" Hutch managed to utter in a small voice.  "Will you do it...  for  me?" he asked softly.

Starsky tilted his head in a doubtful gesture.  "Well, I'd do it if I knew those words were coming from Ken Hutchinson, not Richard Hutchinson," Starsky stated calmly, arching an eyebrow knowingly.

It took a couple seconds for Hutch's face to register the full impact of Starsky's words.  When it did, the change in the pleading face was dramatical.  Hutch's features seemed to literally turn to stone.  The muscles and tendons in his cheeks, temples and eyes tensed visibly and he ground his teeth audibly.  Starsky had known all along; he hadn't fooled him for a minute.  But that didn't change the fact that he needed the distance.  He needed to stop hurting before his heart broke for good.  Not knowing how to react to such an unexpected reverse, his entire body froze in place, his nostrils flaring.

Starsky spoke again, his accent oozing tenderness and understanding, as if trying to soothe the beast that was stirring in his partner's chest.  "Believe me, Hutch.  If I thought that staying away from me was best for you, I'd move to the other side of the moon if I could.  But you see, on the one hand you're saying that you're commited to our partnership, and on the other that you need to keep your distance from it.  One of those statements can't be true.  And I know you enough to guess which one it is."  Starsky seemed to caress Hutch's form with his eyes.  His voice was silky.  It seemed amazing that he could be essentially calling his partner a liar and making the words sound so kind and gentle at the same time.

"Both are true, Starsky."  It never crossed Hutch's mind to get angry at what his partner was implying.  "I'm not breaking our friendship, I just need to keep some distance from it, that's all.  There's no contradiction in that.  And believe it or not, you also need that distance.  Your independence's being seriously compromised by our closeness."

"Maybe, but I don't see our closeness as a threat.  And you never did, either.  Until now."  His eyes bored into Hutch's very soul and he nodded, showing he was aware of everything Hutch wasn't saying.

That look did get Hutch angry.  He got angry at Starsky and at himself for ever allowing his partner so close in the first place.  There was no escape now, no matter how much he wanted it.  How much he needed it.  Starsky wasn't letting him stay away from him.  He wasn't giving an inch.  He didn't want to understand that their closeness had become too painful for Hutch to bear.  To the point where it hadn't let him die in peace.  He blamed Starsky for opening his heart to love and caring, only to be denied their comfort when he had needed them the most.  And he couldn't forgive Starsky for it.  He couldn't forgive nor forget those agonizing hours he had alternated between delirium and unconsciousness, when he had desperately reached out to the ghostlike image of his loving partner, only to blink and realize he was alone in his deathbed.  That he was dying alone.  It had been his worst fear come alive, once more.  Just as it had happened the three days he had lain pinned under his car, dying a slow, terrifying death, alone.  His worst fear had become a regular ocurrence all those years, he suddenly realized.  But it was a fear he had come to master, until Starsky wreaked havoc on his cold, sterile existence.  Now, that fear had all the power over him whenever Starsky wasn't beside him.  That was why he had relented to the impeccable logic in the voice.  He was sick of being afraid when only ten years ago he would have endured his illness and the final days of his life with utter peace and serenity.

He was tired; infinitely, soulfully tired.  He didn't want this love if it hurt more than it healed.  He didn't want it if the more they gave each other the less satisfying it seemed to be.  They were sucking each other dry emotionally, and it never seemed to be enough. Loving Starsky had become painful instead of joyful.  And the plague had been the last straw. 

He was on the verge of monopolizing his partner's time and affections, and for what?  For a pain that couldn't be soothed.  No matter the way Starsky saw it, this wasn't healthy.  He felt it wasn't.  They had virtually no friendships outside each other's; they were little more than mere acquaintances, most of them between their colleagues at work.  At this rate, it would soon come a time when he would crave Starsky's exclusive attention, and if that happened, their relationship would be doomed.

Even his love life had come to a dead halt.  When was the last time he had been romantically involved with a lady?  One night stands didn't count, just something even remotely regular or meaningful.  He had to think hard to remember.  Judith Kaufman had been a nice, lovely distraction.  More like a dying man's last chance of flirting and playing a sweet seduction game, but the fact was that when she had left a few hours ago, only his male ego had stung a little.  An uncharacteristic sexual apathy seemed to have befallen him the last few months.  In turn, Starsky filled almost every aspect of his life, and the weirdest thing of all was that it was all right with him.  Hutch didn't need anything or anyone else. 

He didn't know what was happening to him, but the more he thought about it, the more convinced he was that he had to put an end to this, in any way he could and whether Starsky wanted it or not.

Once more, he cursed himself and Starsky for what the curly-haired man had unleashed inside him.  If only he could turn his heart to stone!  If only he could have controlled what was happening to him, between them...  But it was pointless to cry over spilt milk.  He had to take the necessary measures now for his feelings not to get in the way again.  "Well, the way I see it, partner, it doesn't seem like you have much of a choice here," he said, his blue eyes turning as cold as ice.

Starsky's face winced with more pain than Hutch had ever seen.  Not even when the shooting in the italian restaurant and his face had been contorted with pain, he had conveyed more agony than his eyes had shown for a millisecond.

And Hutch hated himself more than he had ever hated anyone in his life for what he had just done to his friend.  To the person he loved the most in the world and the person who loved him more than he ever deserved.

Starsky recovered pretty quickly, though, and he stared at Hutch for a short while.  "We'll see about that, partner," he retorted ironically, putting the final bit of his sandwhich in his mouth and chewing with deliberate slowness.

Suddenly, Hutch felt exhausted.  More tired than his body could stand.  A sudden wave of dizziness came over him and he fixed his eyes on the top of one of his friend's slightly disarrayed curls until it passed.  He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment.  When he opened them again, Starsky was watching him with a puzzled expression.  Shaking his head, he started clearing the table.  "Erm, I truly appreciate what you've done for me, but I think you should leave now.  You probably have better things to do than nursemaid me."  He never looked up into the heartbreakingly expressive indigo eyes.  One wounded look was enough, thanks.  'Coward,' a voice inside him said.

"You think so?"  Starsky asked rhetorically.

Since his partner obviously didn't expect an answer, Hutch limited himself to shrug coyly.  He stood up and another wave of dizziness made him grab the back of his chair, in an automatic attempt to steady himself.


A heartbeat later, two strong arms wrapped themselves around his torso and he was firmly supported by the most comforting strength he had ever known.  Instinctively, he leaned onto that cozy, helplessly welcome warmth, as he had always done; but a moment later, Hutch remembered the deal he had made with himself and he jerked himself away from those arms.  He was able to remain standing this time, but a bone-chilling tremor coursed through his strangely weakened body.

He ached for Starsky's touch already.  Oh, God, this was going to be sheer nightmare.

"You okay?"  Starsky asked softly, unhindered by Hutch's harshness.

"Yeah, I felt dizzy for a second, but it's gone now."  Hutch looked around him, apparently confused about his surroundings.  "Ahh, I-  I think I'm gonna wash up and go to bed."

"Good idea," Starsky agreed.  "Want some help?" he raised his hand and held it a few inches away from Hutch's back, just in case his partner needed his support again.

But Hutch was determined to go through this alone.  Walking with slow and deliberately measured steps, trying to hide the disturbing fatigue that had suddenly affected him, he entered his bathroom and closed the door after him.

Starsky's eyes remained fixed on the closed door for several minutes and in the end, he looked down with a heartfelt sigh.

Hutch's hard and ruthless attitude was breaking his heart, but he was determined to not let it get to him.  Had it been anyone else, he would have punched the lights out of him a long time ago.  Only Hutch was allowed.  Only Hutch was ever allowed.  Always. 

Forcing himself to move, he began clearing the table.  Only part of his brain was actually on the task at hand.  He couldn't stop thinking about the words his partner had said, but most of all, about the words Hutch hadn't said.  Starsky had learnt many years ago to read between his friend's lines.  Hutch couldn't hide anything from him, although he still contented himself sometimes with the illusion that he could.

Hutch was hurting to the point of breaking, Starsky was only too aware of that.  Hutch only got that nasty when he was protecting his inner core from collapsing, and his huge, beautiful heart from breaking down.  Hutch's feelings were the strongest Starsky had ever encountered.  Hutch felt things right down to his very soul.  He was certain that the big blond had grown up afraid of himself, of his awesome capacity to feel; but what terrified Hutch the most was what happened both inside and around him whenever those feelings broke loose.  And his biggest fear of all was that the brutal intensity of his feelings drew Starsky away. 

Even now!

Starsky's mind travelled back in time to the climax of all those times, to the minutes following Gillian's death.  The sudden, terrible shock of finding his girlfriend dead in her own apartment had shattered that precious control Hutch prided himself on.  All the pain, anger, helplessness and immense grief had exploded from him like a million years' bottled-up geyser and caused him to punch his best friend.  Starsky felt as if Hutch had hit him with all the pain in the world.  The way Hutch had grabbed him next, shaken him and pulled him to his feet as if he was a rag doll, had shown in all its disturbing rawness the unyielding control Hutch had over himself all of the time.

But his ultimate proof had been Hutch's final breakdown, when he had collapsed in his arms and cried his heart out in them.  He had let it all out, he had emptied himself in that heartrending outbreak of feelings.  And Starsky had felt powerless to comfort such superhuman level of anguish.  He had never faced such intensity of feeling before.  No wonder Hutch always kept himself under such inhuman control.  Beneath that cool, imperturbable façade lay a fiery volcano of emotions that no one and nothing could soothe once they found a small crack in his defences. 

No one, but Starsky.

He hadn't been repulsed by this degree of feeling in the least.  On the contrary, he had welcomed it eagerly.  He had even encouraged Hutch to let go all the way.  He could take it.  He could comfort this wounded creature who only wanted to find a safe place to heal and belong, and had never found before.  No one had ever been strong enough to share it.  No one had wanted to share it.  No one had been brave and compassionate enough to be there for him and face this terrifying world of earth-shattering feelings and soothe them.  They had only crushed it unmercifully, they had taught Hutch to repress it, to ignore it, to be ashamed of it and fear it even more.

All the beauty Hutch cradled inside, and Starsky had been the only one allowed to be swept away in it.  It had been insane, devastating.  Hutch had abandoned himself to a paroxysm of tears and agony that had resulted in his blond becoming physically sick.  He would never forget those terrible moments in Gillian's bathroom, when he had held a retching Hutch who even in the middle of throwing his guts up, still couldn't give up the crying and the tears that were drowning them both.

And Starsky had taken it all.  Gratefully.  And he had considered it the greatest honor and felt doubly blessed for it.

But a few minutes later, as easily as when you turn a faucet off, Hutch had closed the dam of his emotions and pulled himself together with his characteristic iron will to go out there and nail his Gillian's murderers.

Starsky had understood then.  He had understood far more than he had bargained for.  And his love, respect and admiration for that 6' 1" man grew beyond every possible measure.

He remembered that time and knew why Hutch was behaving like that now.  That tender heart was bleeding to death and Hutch was set on sparing Starsky this time.  He was determined to stop feeling so much, and hurting so much, at any price.  Even if that price meant putting the brakes on their relationship...  or worse.

Starsky took a deep breath and released it in a long sigh.  He wasn't going to allow it.  He wouldn't let Hutch back away, because if he let his partner get away with it, it would mean both their deaths anyway.  They would go on living, perhaps, but they would be dead inside.

The sound of the bathroom door being slowly opened brought him back to reality with a shiver.  The form that emerged from the cubicle looked even worse than the man who had entered it a few minutes before.  Hutch looked ravaged, destroyed.  Pale to the point his skin seemed translucent, weak and dragging his feet along like an old man.  Under his light PJ's he looked even thinner than 30 minutes ago.  Big rings under his eyes gave his face an almost deathly look; his features seemed sharper, like carved in stone.  Even the lovely blond hair that always reflected the light and made that gentle, noble face shine, looked opaque now.

His first, and only, instinct was to rush forward and hold his irritating, stubborn partner in his arms and squeeze some sense back into him.  But he knew that Hutch's pigheadedness equalled, if not sometimes surpassed, his own.  Well, paraphrasing that old saying, it was time to use the carrot instead of the stick.  Confrontation wasn't the right approach anymore.  Hutch would best him at it.  Feelings were what Hutch was running away from.  They would be the most effective weapon against him now. 

It was his only chance, and Starsky prayed to God it worked, because there was no way on Earth he would face a life without Hutch.

The blond man turned his head and looked at him.  Starsky shuddered.  The agony in those deep-set eyes was infinite, no matter how hard Hutch was trying to hide it.  The immediate ironical sneer that covered the momentary slip felt wrong on the sweet face, and convinced Starsky that Hutch was going to make it as difficult as he could.  He would have to strip Hutch bare of every layer he had hidden behind and expose the pure and vulnerable core that lay beneath.  He knew very well he was trying to provoke the same extreme reaction that had been unleashed with Gillian's death.  The brutal release of Hutch's emotions was going to take them over and turn them inside out again.  But Starsky wasn't afraid.  There was nothing to fear about Hutch's feelings.  Starsky cherished them all, since they all came from the most beautiful source, his partner's heart.

"Thanks for clearing the table," Hutch said, his voice without the slightest intonation.  Starsky's skin crawled.  His partner's voice reminded him of the voices some people taped in empty rooms, cemeteries and such, that were said to come from the other side, from the dead.  The mere thought made every hair on his body stand on end.  His partner's terrible look didn't help to get that notion from his mind, either.

"Oh, sure," he quickly replied.  "Are you going to bed?" he asked, holding back another shudder.

"Yeah, I'm pretty tired.  You can go now, if you want," the blond man invited.

"You're that desperate to get rid of me, huh?" Starsky spoke out, in a strained voice.

Hutch gazed at him with the same blank look he would sport if he was looking at an inanimate object.  "Frankly, yes," was his cold, unfeeling response.

"Why, thank you very much," Starsky countered sarcastically.

Hutch rolled his eyes exaggeratedly, as if trying to reason with an impenitent child.  "Starsky, it's almost 10 PM.  I can guarantee I'm going to sleep through the night.  What's the point of you staying here, watching over a sleeping man?  Go home.  You can come tomorrow morning and feed me my breakfast, if you're that desperate."  He pronounced the last two words in such a mocking tone of voice that it felt like a slap on the face to the shorter man.

"You're getting awfully nasty, partner.  You're lucky I'm in patient mode."

"More reason for you to leave, then," Hutch arched an eyebrow pointedly, unmoved.

Starsky could see that was exactly what Hutch wanted, but he wasn't about to grant him his wish.  Oh, no!  Hutch was sadly mistaken if he thought Starsky was going to walk out and leave things just the way they were.  "I will," he answered with a crooked smile.  "Soon enough."

Hutch shrugged disdainfully.  "Suit yourself," he replied, walking slowly toward his bed without a backward glance.  He was intent on ignoring Starsky completely.  Exhausted, he sat down on his bed, opened it and slipped between the cool sheets, that almost felt warm to him.  The chill in his soul could freeze a desert.  He had succeeded in turning his heart into stone.  He had succeeded, except for one little fact: the tremor that was making his body shake from head to foot. 

He would beat himself to bleed for the cruel, vicious way he was treating his best friend.  He grabbed the bedclothes and squeezed them until his knuckles turned white.  This was the man he had become?  A despicable, pathetic bastard who made others pay for his pain?  Was Starsky to pay for his cowardice?  Maybe the answer was simpler than it seemed.  He was bad, that was why he behaved like that.

He closed his eyes tight.  He wanted this to stop, but if he wanted Starsky to get his message once and for all, he couldn't afford to be lenient.  Starsky had to understand!  Starsky had to stay away from him for his own good!

All the feelings a person could possibly experience in a lifetime seemed to have gathered up inside him and they were crushing him.  He was tired, confused, irritated, scared, sad, hurting...  Starsky's affectionate overtures and his refusal to take the bait and get angry at him hurt too. 

Everything in him was dying to reach out and find comfort in his partner, as he had been doing for years.  How could he survive now without those bearhugs, that toothy grin, that boyish enthusiasm, that innocent openness that was his most cherished treasure?  Starsky's heart was his home, the only home his mistreated, weary spirit had ever found. 

No!  His feelings were overwhelming him again.  He wouldn't bestow such a terrible burden on Starsky again.  He would never subject him to the same sickly horror he had witnessed after Gillian's death.  It was bad enough that Starsky had seen it once.  They had survived it relatively unscathed, but a second time would be more than anything neither of them could bear. 

He shook his head, trying to clear from his mind's eye the deeply disturbing images of that evening.  He had always prided himself on his self-control.  Years of merciless parental tutoring and self-discipline had taught him to keep a tight rein on the feelings that no one seemed to care about.  He had bottled them up and turned self-restraint into a form of art.  Only his wife had been allowed beyond that masterfully locked door.  But after Vanessa's final humiliation, he swore to himself that no one else would ever 'touch' him again.  He would only let people share in what little he gave, and let them get as close as he permitted.  Nothing more, nothing less.

Ironically, a funny curly-haired jewish guy he had met only a few weeks before his marriage blew up for good decided to stick by him and not let him dwell on the wreckage his life had become.  And before he knew, the most wondrous, unique, awesome relationship he had never dreamt of, warmed his frozen heart and made it bloom.  It sounded sappy, but that was exactly what Starsky had done.  He had taken his scarred, wounded heart in his hands, and healed it with his love of life, his streetwise insight and his inborn gentleness.  Hutch had never met a man like him.  Starsky looked and behaved like the typical macho man; and at the same time, he was so much more than that.  Starsky didn't fit any stereotypes, no matter how much he looked like some of them.  To begin with, he had no qualms whatsoever about showing his feelings whenever it pleased him, or rather, whenever it was necessary.  And he always showed them to Hutch whenever he needed it.  And almost against his will, Hutch found himself responding.  It felt so right, so natural with Starsky.  Sometimes, the fierceness of his own responses to Starsky's friendly overtures overpowered him.  But somehow, he always remained in control.  He could feel his heart opening and the most beautiful feelings coming out of it like sweet raindrops.  And he gave them all to his partner.  It amazed him that he still could feel so much.  It was as if he was one step behind himself during those moments while he watched himself opening up.  But he was there, all right!  He was there, sharing it all with Starsky; and Starsky shared all of himself with Hutch in return, and they poured out their very souls on one another.  He had never known such beauty.  He fed on it, he craved it, it was his very reason to live!

Until that fateful day, when he had found his beloved Gillian lying on the floor, dead.  Everything had been so perfect lately!  He was exhilarated, giddy with joy and happiness.  He had found the love of his life and he had the best friend anybody could ever have.  Life was perfect.  He didn't need anything else.  Gillian and Starsky filled his entire world, every aspect of his life.  He was simply the richest man on the face of the Earth.

The shock of suddenly finding his dream lying dead on the floor hit him harder than any blow fate had given him in his lifetime.  He had lost love forever.  That feeling had just died for good with Gillian.

The brutal shock broke through his every defence, and left his vulnerable core torn to pieces and exposed to all the pain and suffering that was unexpectedly bombarding him from all fronts; even from Starsky, with all the shit he was spouting about Gillian being a hooker.

And he had released all those feelings by turning against the only person alive who loved him and cared about his feelings more than anyone else ever had.  He hit Starsky, shook him around viciously and spewed words full of disbelieving contempt before finally opening his eyes and acknowledging the truth that had been crystal clear all along, if only love hadn't blinded him to it.

The shame, pain and need of comfort he had felt then made every feeling he had ever experienced before pale in comparison.  He knew he wasn't worthy of ever asking any more, but all his being had begged for a little compassion and understanding.  And he had turned to the only light remaining in his world.

And Starsky had been there for him.  And how!  Oh, sweet Lord, it had been everything he dreamed of since he had been old enough to dream, and more!  Starsky took his every raw, naked, inconsolable feeling and soothed and cradled it in his heart as he cradled his collapsing body in his arms.

He had been terrified.  He had never felt anything so strongly.  All those feelings were choking him, they made him want to shrink into himself and disappear into nowhere.  He felt small and ugly, like an imploding black hole.  This was what his parents, and himself, had been warning him against all those years.  This level of feeling was insane, unhealthy, wild.  And his public display felt indecorous, obscene.  He felt so ashamed, so low, he got sick.  He had wanted to spare Starsky and push him away.  But his partner didn't allow it.  In fact, he encouraged him to release it all, to give up all pretense, all control, and let it all out.

And Hutch opened the floodgates of his heart and released all the pain he had been holding back for thirty years.  And Starsky took it all, enveloping him in his arms and encompassing him whole.  Not just his sagging body, but all his being.  His partner's warmth, his caring, devastating love reached out and wrapped him in a cozy blanket of comfort and tenderness as he had never known.

He had never felt so cherished, so completely accepted, even down to the darkest, ugliest parts of him.  Even in this primal state, Starsky wasn't repulsed by him.  Starsky was there for him.  He was there!  It was a miracle.  The only dream he had ever wished, had come true when he needed it the most.

He had no strength left, not even to cling to Starsky for dear life.  They had ended up on the floor of Gillian's bathroom, with Starsky holding him while he vomited his guts out.

The distraught intensity of his feelings had gotten him sick.  It left him ravaged, shattered.  And Starsky had given him everything he needed, attuned as he always was to every fiber of his being.  He lovingly helped him to put his pieces back together, and Hutch managed to get a grip on himself in order to go out and catch Gillian's assassins.

Maybe Starsky hadn't been repulsed, but Hutch had been thoroughly put off by his display.  It scared him to death to see himself turned into a completely helpless creature, paralyzed by grief and anger, unable to fend for himself.  It was the greatest shock to witness firsthand the raw depth of his own needs, how low he could fall because of them.  It had been insane.  His feelings robbed him of all the dignity and self-control that had always ruled his life. 

That time had been a warning, but he ignored it.  Starsky's unconditional love had made him forget about it.

But it happened again a few days before, when he was dying alone in a hospital bed.  And instead of accepting his fate stoically, he had moaned and cried and condemned himself to an even more pathetic death, hallucinating constantly about his partner, groaning out for him like a terrified five year old, only to be denied the final comfort of his life, except for some gloved and masked moments wrapped in white lies that had hurt more than anything else.  It was the ultimate mockery.  He begged for a little human touch before he died, and he was rewarded with a crude travesty of the private, soulfilling, beautiful times they had shared in the past.  He only wanted to die in his partner's arms, and even his death wish had been denied.

He had come to fear loneliness more than death itelf.  That was what feelings had done to him.

Feelings were painful; they were a hindrance, an endless source of embarrassment and self-humiliation.  He had no choice but admit that truth.

But he also had to admit that without Starsky and the feelings he stirred in him, there was nothing worth living for.  'Damn you, Starsk!  Why did you have to do this to me?' he cried out in his mind.

It hurt less to give up love when you've never known it, than when you've been feeding on it for years.  He had known the heavenly beauty of Starsky's soft words, the all-powerful safety of his arms when the world seemed to be falling apart, the joy of his smile, always capable of lifting his spirits whenever they had faced a no win scenario.  Without them, he was dying.

It was a losing battle he was fighting with himself.  No!  It couldn't be.  It wouldn't be!  Never again!  His father was right.  Love was an illusion, a fanciful dream you cling to when you're weak and can't face the ugliness of the world alone.  When you need it the most, you always find yourself alone.

But Starsky's love and devotion had never failed him.  His partner had never failed him, in any way!  He had been searching for Callendar, that was why he couldn't be with him.  Starsky saved his life.  Without Starsky, he would've been dead for years now.  In more ways than one.

He just...  he just wanted to stop hurting, to stop feeling so torn.  He wanted to stop needing Starsky to smile, to breathe, to feel, to be!  It would soon come a time when their ever increasing feelings would destroy them.  He could see the danger looming over them.

Who was he trying to fool?  It was time to face it once and for all.  He had come to depend on Starsky completely.  He was the weak one.  The fact that Starsky always welcomed his company and seemed to be just as eager to be with him, never crossed his mind.  Hutch only knew that sooner or later, Starsky would resent his neediness, the lack of a private life he could truly call his own.  No matter the way his partner saw it, this wasn't healthy.  He had to put an end to this before he strained their friendship to its breaking point.

Always Hutch came to the same conclusion.  His past had finally caught up with him.  The emotional abandonment he suffered as a child had been sublimated by Starsky's love.  And greedy bastard that he was, he needed more and more of his partner.  Forever more.  He had become an emotional vampire who never seemed to have enough.  This had to stop.

He knew that Starsky would deny every attempt of reasoning.  He would find a sound answer for every argument Hutch gave.  And he couldn't allow it.  Starsky was too close to the problem to see it clearly.  Hutch's self-imposed closeness had blinded him to see what was really happening there.  But this crisis had thankfully opened Hutch's eyes. 

It had to be done, as simple as that.  They had to be strong on their own if they wanted to be stronger together.  He hadn't lied before, he was really losing himself in their partnership.  He couldn't function without Starsky anymore, and that could be extremely dangerous.  He would do this by fair means or foul, Starsky had given him no other choice.

He prayed he could survive breaking his friend's heart.  He was behaving like a monster, ruthlessly rejecting Starsky's every attempt to restore their closeness.  Every barbed comment he lashed out was tearing him apart, but he had to hang on.  He was used to locking his feelings behind so many walls, layers and shields that nothing and no one could penetrate.  He could take it.  He only had to remind himself that he was doing this for Starsky.  His Starsky.  The most wonderful human being in the world.  He would go through this because Starsky's well-being was the only thing he cared about.  It was the only thing he could give him anymore, to ensure his happiness and his emotional equilibrium.  And right now, Hutch was the last person Starsky needed around.

He ground his teeth when he remembered Starsky's uncanny deduction of his earlier words coming from his father, not from him.  His partner's perceptiveness awed and angered him.  But the truth was that Hutch was forced to accept his father's words not because he had given up, but because the old man was right.  And when someone was right, the wisest thing to do was yielding to their point of view.  To do otherwise was foolish.  He hadn't liked what Starsky implied, but he recognized it as his partner's way of trying to shake him up and reach him.  It wasn't Starsky's fault.  He was getting desperate, that was all.

Forcing himself to strengthen his resolve, Hutch felt a cold breeze grazing at his heart again.  He shuddered brutally and a sheet of sweat covered his entire body.  Not even at the hospital had he felt so cold, and his lips instinctively formed the word 'Starsky.'  Starsky was the source of all warmth and strength.  Without him... 

Hutch closed his eyes when he felt helpless tears filling them.  No!  He would show no weakness!  He was doing this for Starsky.  His partner was all that mattered.  He sniffed softly and opened his eyes.  A sudden feeling of dizziness and vertigo made him close them again and clasp the bedclothes tighter.  He felt as if his big and lonely bed was swallowing him alive.  He felt like a tiny island in the middle of an immense ocean of nothingness.  Just as he had felt after Gillian's death.  Only he had no Starsky now to hold him and put him back together.

Hutch bit his lower lip, almost drawing blood.  He had dug his own grave, so he had no right to complain.  He could only pray for this agony to end soon, although he knew only too well that it would accompany him forever.  Starsky was the only one to fill the fathomless void that accompanied him for as long as he could remember.  With Starsky he was whole.  Starsky completed him, filled his heart to bursting with all the things important in life.  He reminded him of what was good and right.  He kept him sane and focused.  And alive.  Truly alive.

Good Lord.  How was he going to make it without him? 

By reminding himself this was the best he could do, for the two of them.  He knew it was, no matter how painful, no matter if it killed him.  And judging from the searing pain that suddenly encompassed every inch of his quivering body and every corner of his withering soul, these could very well be prophetic thoughts.

Hutch tucked himself up to his shoulders.  Everything was suddenly dark and grey around him.  And the cold!  It was like the chill that had permeated his body down to his bones when the plague had stricken, only infinitely worse.

Another brutal shudder racked his aching body.  He endured it resignedly, knowing it would be a very long time until he got warm again.  If ever.

Starsky watched Hutch walking tiredly toward his bed.  His partner's body expression immediately reminded him of the words 'dead man walking.'  Hutch's footsteps, his entire body language, spoke of a man who'd lost all hope, all reason to live.  His heart skipped a beat in his chest at the thought.

He heard the soft sounds of the mattress springs screeching under his friend's weight and a few seconds later, a bone-chilling silence enveloped the apartment.

Starsky looked down and took a deep, calming breath.  He turned about and, bending forward and placing his hands on the table, he blew out the candle.  All of a sudden, the whole place felt desolate, lifeless.

He had to be strong, and patient.  And calculating.  He had to "attack" when Hutch less expected it, when all his shields were down and he thought he was safe in his little bubble of self-preserving emotional sterility.

Starsky was very good at putting himself in his partner's shoes.  This nightmare had left his friend hanging on the verge of a truly deep pychological trauma.  Hutch was still very weak physically and his state of mind was just as shaky.  He thought he was able to hide the real motive by claiming he needed to distance himself from their partnership; but as usual, Starsky saw right through Hutch's half-truth.  This traumatic experience made him regret the closeness they shared, and he wanted to spare his partner the burden of enduring his desperate need of comfort.

The dickhead!  Couldn't he see that this crisis had been just as hard for Starsky?  Closeness was the balm to their pain.  Closeness was the only answer!  How could Hutch have forgotten that?  How could he make such a drastic decision after all the years of shared joys and sorrows?  How dare he close the door on all the tears, hugs, laughter and love?  They survived those awful times thanks to their unique closeness.  It kept them alive and sane.  He wouldn't let Hutch take that treasure away from them now just because!

He needed to calm down again.  Casting a quick look around the apartment, he began putting things away, here and there, while deep in thought.

How could Hutch think that staying away from him was going to make things better or easier for them?  Starsky also needed comfort from the horror they had gone through.  He trusted that once they got to Hutch's place, they would indulge themselves in a mutually reassuring session of cuddling while watching tv or listening to some soft music, as they used to do after every close call or after every devastating loss.  Music always soothed the edges of their pain, Hutch's singing on the top of his list, and physical contact did the rest.  Sometimes, he thought he would never have enough of Hutch's overwhelming presence wrapped around him.  There was so much peace there!  As if nothing bad could happen in Hutch's arms, as if nothing in the world could harm him, harm them both.  And when he felt Hutch responding to his touch, relaxing completely in his arms and trusting himself totally to his care, he knew the reason he had been put on this Earth.

They needed each other so much it was scary sometimes.  Lesser men would probably find such intimacy to be a sign of weakness, but to them it had been a source of courage and strength as they had never known.  Their closeness was invigorating, it was a big part of what motivated them to go out there and face the lowlife they confronted every day in the streets, with a warmer heart and a renewed determination to make a difference.

He would die before letting Hutch reduce this miracle to a pale shadow of the glory it could be.

Taking a final deep breath, he turned about and looked at the huddled form under the bedclothes.  His heart ached.  The image of a restless Hutch twisting and turning in his hospital bed the night before the first symptoms appeared, filled his mind all of a sudden.  How lonely and helpless he had felt then!  Separated from his partner by a simple glass that felt like the Iron Curtain.  So close and yet so far.  Unable to touch him, unable to step into the room, hold Hutch in his arms and assure him that everything would be all right.  And when he practically pushed his way inside, those few minutes with Judith as a witness felt like a mockery, a practical joke.  Hutch had shut him out from the very beginning and all but thrown him out of the room.  It was the most disturbing, heartbreaking experience.  He knew the two of them craved now for the moments they were robbed of back then.  He wouldn't allow Hutch to deny them now.  He would get through that thick skull of his, no matter what.  His steady, honest love would defeat all the insidious reasoning Richard Hutchinson had spewed into his friend's brain all the hours he had been by himself, semiconscious and completely helpless to defend himself, and cut off from his affectionate partner's loving influence.

Starsky's heart broke when he saw the big body trembling under the bedcovers.  It felt like a call to his very soul and before he knew, he walked up to the brass bed and he was looking down at the blond man on it, who almost immediately turned onto his left side, turning his back on him, literally and metaphorically.  Starsky stood still where he was, not giving an inch.

"You finished stalling?"  Hutch finally said in a strained voice.  He tried to sound exasperated and patronizing, but Starsky could feel the raw pain and need there, a perfect mirror of his own.  He took one step closer to the bed.

"Yeah," he answered in a deep voice.

"And shouldn't you split now?"  Hutch invited as tonelessly as he could manage.

Starsky smiled to himself.  "I will; when I'm finished...  with you," the gentleness in his voice surprised even himself.

Hutch sighed, hardly managing to control his irritation.  "Starsky, I'd really like to get some sleep; and frankly, I've had enough of your pathetic attempts at psychoanalizing me."

"Good, in that case you won't mind me telling you a fairytale."

Wondering if he had heard correctly, Hutch immediately looked back at his smiling partner.  "What?!"  he asked, his eyes almost popping out of their sockets.

"That's what people usually do when children are going to sleep, right?"  Starsky's smile never wavered.

His partner's mildly condescending tone of voice made Hutch see red.  Setting his jaw at having his repeated requests for a little privacy denied, Hutch snorted dangerously and turned his back on Starsky again.

Starsky was too aware of the risk he was taking by stirring Hutch's anger, but he wasn't about to 'step back' and let his friend push him away.  This was a fight to the death between David Starsky and Richard Hutchinson for Hutch's soul.  Starsky wouldn't let that warm, pure soul be turned into a floe.  That wouldn't happen for as long as he lived.  Offhand, he thought of just how fitting his plan was.  Judith had mentioned how much Hutch resembled a little boy while he had lain in that small bed, restless and lonely.  Starsky's heart constricted at the the truth of her statement, and he didn't know what prevented him from barging into the room, taking that man-child in his arms and rocking him to a peaceful, dreamless sleep.  He had settled for the next best thing instead, writing his own nickname in the glass so that Hutch could see him every time he looked at it.

And here they were now, at an impasse in their relationship, brought about by the darkness that had lurked in his friend's heart all these years, waiting for a moment of total vulnerability to take root inside Hutch and take him away from Starsky.

Starsky took a deep, calming breath, preparing himself for the upcoming battle.  Praying for a little help from above, he heaved a soft sigh and very slowly he sat down on the edge of the bed and put his hand on Hutch's ankle, needing at least one point of contact with his partner's body.

A heartbeat later, Hutch jerked his foot away from Starsky's light grasp.

The curly-haired man winced in searing emotional pain.  He shut his eyes, trying to hold back the tears that immediately filled them.  Hutch's flat rejection was so foreign, so unnatural, that he felt as if his heart had been stabbed with the finest dagger. 

With superhuman effort, Starsky pulled himself together and ignored the pain with a determination born out of sheer stubbornness.  He wouldn't give up until they were deep in each other's arms.  Hutch could yell at him, insult him, hit him even, but before the day was over, they would go to sleep clinging to one another for all they were worth.  As sure as fate!  He cleared his throat softly.  "Once upon a time..." he began in a sudden faraway voice.  He let himself be swept away by the fantasy he was imagining that he knew was no fantasy at all.  It was as if he had entered an alternate dimension of reality and a distant, almost ethereal quality filled his voice, like a shaman casting a spell on all those around him, himself included.  "Once upon a time there was a beautiful blond little boy.  He had blue eyes and the sweetest, gentlest soul.  His family was educated and wealthy, and he apparently had everything a child could need to grow up healthy and happy.  Unfortunately, the boy's parents were cold and hardhearted, and they made of the little boy's childhood the most unhappy years of his life.  He just wanted to love and be loved, and he was taught to hold back his feelings instead, to crush his every emotion because it was bad taste and inappropriate."

Hutch felt as if someone had reached into him, grabbed his heart and squeezed the life out of him.  He had never known pain like this.  With a shake of his head, he tried to free himself from it.  He wanted to shake off the spell Starsky seemed to have put on him, but he couldn't.  He was a prisoner of his partner's words, just as he was a prisoner of the emotional armor his father had dressed him with since he could remember. 

Instinctively, he moved to the farthest edge of the bed, as far away from Starsky as he could, without falling off the bed.  He took hold of the pillow and squeezed it in his hand.  He wished he could cover his ears, but that would be a sign of weakness, and that was something he couldn't afford.  He wouldn't renounce his precious control now.  Control was all he had left, since Starsky seemed determined to strip him bare of everything he was leaning on to maintain a dignified façade.  He tried to think of something else, to concentrate on anything his mind conjured up, but it was useless.  Starsky's infinitely soft, warm voice was reaching deep inside him and lovingly coaxing him into opening up again.  The pull was so strong that resisting it seemed out of the question.  This was his partner, his best friend, the closest person to his heart.  And the person who could hurt him more than anyone, and beyond repair. 

But the most ironical thing of all was that he had given Starsky the weapons he was using against him now.  Fool!  What a fool he had been!

And Starsky didn't stop.  He went on relentlessly, painstakingly...  tenderly.  "The little boy grew up and became a gorgeous big blond beauty.  Everything was perfect outside, and broken and torn inside.  He had learnt his lesson, or so everybody thought.  But his need of love and his wish to find someone one day who could love him the same way he loved, only grew.  He moved on; crippled, lonely, longing for something that no one seemed able to give." 

Starsky made a short pause then and took a deep, shaky breath.  Something was happening to him.  He wasn't just telling this story.  Hutch's story.  He was living it.  He was experiencing Hutch's life, down to every piercing feeling.  He was accompanying Hutch through his vital journey, going through his every emotion during those years, as if he was a part of his very soul.

It was so strange!  He blinked to try and clear his head, but the feeling remained.  Something had taken hold of him from the inside and it was making him join Hutch in this roller-coaster ride through the most painful and life-altering moments of his partner's life.  Swallowing the terrible lump in his throat, he proceeded.  "One day, he met this beautiful lady who won his love starved heart.  He offered himself as he had never done before.  He thought he had found his own true love, that special someone who'd always stand by him, support him and love him no matter what, just as he was ready to do for her.  Everything was perfect for a while, and he let his shields down all the way, thinking there was nothing to fear anymore.  Feeling safe and truly loved for the first time in his life, he plucked up his courage and decided to follow his heart and be himself once and for all.  He chose to leave behind the empty life he had led until then, trusting his wife to support his decisions just as he supported hers.  He chose to protect and to serve others, and become a cop.  To his horror, his lovely wife revealed her true colors then.  She had no intention of becoming the wife of a loser, someone who didn't care about improving his professional status, capital and position, and only aspired to make the lives of all poor unfortunate souls out there a little easier.  A generous, noble man who'd prefer to be able to look at himself in the mirror over his savings account.  She broke his heart from the inside, hurting him more than anyone should ever be able to suffer.  She abandoned him, throwing his love and his integrity in his face, never looking back at the broken pieces she left behind."

Hutch buried his face in the pillow, desperately trying to protect himself from the searing pain Starsky's tale was evoking in him.  He wanted to punch him, he wanted to scream until he had no voice anymore, he wanted to cry himself to sleep and forget who he was, who he had been and who he would ever be.  But it was impossible, he would have to ride this out until Starsky considered he had tortured him enough.  But he wouldn't break!  Starsky wouldn't get what he sought!  He'd endure this until the end.  Even if it killed him.

"The young man entered the Police Academy, swearing to himself he'd never let anyone break his heart again.  He'd never care that much again about another human being.  Loneliness was preferable to heartache and bitter disappointment.  He steeled himself and did his best to harden his heart against any gentle feelings."  Starsky made a short pause and took another deep breath.  Part of his mind resurfaced and a little smile lit up his features.  His voice softened and reached out to envelop Hutch in the warm, loving feelings he was broadcasting now.  "But, lo and behold, in the Academy he met this incredibly handsome, gorgeous and intelligent fella, with an irresistible personality, who immediately recognized in that clumsy, klutzy, tripsy long-legged Midwest boy the best friend any man could ever have.  He saw right away the burden the young man was carrying, how scarred his soul was and how hard he was trying to not ever care too much about anyone again.  At first, Blondie rejected all the friendly gestures the other man attempted.  He was nice, kind and polite.  Period.  But with a little understanding and patience from this irresistible guy, a warm and beautiful friendship formed between them."

There was another short pause.

"Have you finished?" Hutch managed to ask in a weak, strangled voice.

Starsky smiled sadly and reached out to rest his hand on the steadily trembling body.  But remembering how jumpy Hutch was, he drew his hand back.  He would touch only when asked.  "No, baby blue, I haven't," he answered, his accent oozing tenderness.  "I've just begun."

Starsky could feel Hutch's anger and frustration coming out in waves then.  He looked up again, begging for a little more help.  This was going to be the hardest time their relationship would ever know, but if he succeeded, nothing would ever stand between them again.  No ghosts from Hutch's past or his own, no illnesses, no goons, nothing under the sun would ever harm them.  "I'll talk in the first person now 'cause there are a few things I wanna share with you.  After all the years we've known each other, I never thought I'd have to remind you of this.  But I guess that sometimes people forget the most basic things.  They get lost in their worst fears and nightmares, and they need someone to guide them back home." 

He sighed softly then and watched the curled up form under the bedclothes with adoration.  "It took me some time to get through that thick hide of yours, partner, but I always knew what lay in your heart.  I figured you out from the first moment I saw you.  The more you tried to hide it, the clearer it was to me.  I saw that pure, loving heart starved for love," he smiled in sweet surrender then.  "As starved as mine was."

Hutch closed his eyes, wishing he never had to open them again.  Starsky's words were stripping him bare of every layer, leaving him naked inside.  The fact that he had told this story as if he was telling anybody else's story, not his own, only made the impact of his words harder.  The feelings Starsky was pouring on him felt like a myriad of punches and blows.  He knew his partner was trying to break him and make him as soft and vulnerable as he used to be.  But he couldn't afford to pay the price anymore.  He couldn't pay that much any more!  Couldn't Starsky understand it?

"Perhaps you're wondering how the story ends," Starsky swallowed the burning lump in his throat.  "Well, only that little boy knows.  He's the only one who's got the power to decide how everything's going to end, for the two of us.  But before he makes up his mind and ruins his life, and mine in the process, just hear me out, Hutch.  I swear on my dad's grave that you're the only thing I care about.  You know me and you know that's the truth.  But that's what scares you the most, isn't it?"

Hutch held back a hiss, and made a fast grab for the bedclothes.

"When you knew me, you opened up again to love and sharing with another human being.  You knew you were finally safe and that I'd cut off my arm before hurting you.  But deep down, you were always terrified of your emotions, of the raw intensity of your ability to feel.  And you always held back a part of yourself.  All those years of 'training' helped you to control the degree of feeling you were showing, even to me.  That's why you've always managed to stay cool under any situation.  Even when you've been fighting for my life, you managed to ride those emotions 'cause there was a greater good to protect.  Me.  And only when the danger was over, you allowed yourself the release of those feelings with me.  I bet it felt really good, stepping back a little bit and seeing yourself open up those dams, and your feelings coming out so measured and calm."

The knuckles gripping the bedclothes turned white.

"I'm not trying to hurt you, partner." Starsky immediately realized his last words must have stung.  "You just never planned it that way, did you?  You never thought this gorgeous fella'd get so deep under your skin.  You came to care about me so much that it became more and more difficult to control your emotions around me.  I'm sure it felt wonderful the first few years, when you fully realized you were free at last to trust and feel so much around someone else.  But one fateful day, all that precious control blew up.  Your greatest fear came true and I saw your wounded, naked soul in all its brutal need." 

He sighed sadly.  "But there's one thing you don't know, buddy, and is that I knew all along.  I knew and I was ready for it.  I had been waiting for it for years.  I wanted to show you that I'd be there when you fell and that I'd hold you tight and strong.  You didn't have to be afraid of your feelings, cause they're all beautiful to me.  The day Gillian died, I finally got to know you, Hutch.  Know you all the way.  And you're even more beautiful than I thought you'd be.  That's the only time I fell short of my expectations.  We've gone through so much together, we've seen each other at our worst.  Forest, Prudholm, Rosey...  but I never felt I had gotten to know you completely until that day.  We've faced so much pain before and we've always turned to each other.  We've kept each other's secrets for years.  I've seen you losing it and been strong for you, and you've seen me going berserk and you always managed to keep me focused and whole.  But that day you lost all control and I saw the part that you had kept hidden from me all these years...  It was the most terrible and special moment of my life, Hutch.  I felt helpless because I couldn't give you Gillian back and make you happy, but I felt honored and blessed I was there to hold you and give you everything I am." 

He looked down then and his fingers started playing nervously with some loose threads of Hutch's cover.  "But it wasn't the same for you, was it?  You were ashamed of me seeing you like that.  So in need.  I saw how deeply you feel everything.  And that scared you more than anything, cause that was the first time your feelings really scared you; and repelled you.  Maybe you even thought how violent and ugly your feelings could get, and I'd be put off by them."  Hutch's deathly stillness confirmed his words and Starsky heaved a long sigh.  "But that was your impression, Hutch, not mine.  To me, it was devastating, but so beautiful!"  He let out a tiny smile.  "All right, I know, you hit me; but even in that blow there was so much love and despair, there was so much of you in there!  I'd have gratefully taken a thousand blows if I could've given you Gillian back or eased your pain somehow."  His eyes reddened suddenly, but he resolutely held the tears back.  "But thank God, you didn't stop and think about it.  Not too much, anyway.  Gillian was gone, and the pain was so big you never got to thinking too much about all that crap.  I was there to tell you how precious your feelings are to me, and that I was glad to be there for you cause I'm your friend and I care."  He sighed again.  "And life went on...  until Callendar."

Hutch winced.  Why couldn't Starsky let it be and just leave him alone?  Why did he have to be so damn stubborn?  And now that he thought about it, just when and how his partner had gotten so verbose?  Angry and frustrated, he cursed Starsky for choosing this particular moment to reveal his hidden oral abilities, and torment him with them. 

His eyes burned with the sting of a million unshed tears.  He ached all over.  Not only physically, but right down to his very spirit.  Starsky was breaking him into a billion little pieces.  It hurt to think, to breathe, to be.  He just wanted to close his eyes and find oblivion in sleep.  But even that pitiful haven was being denied.  He rubbed his face against his pillow in a miserable attempt to find comfort and some semblance of peace there.

Apparently heedless of Hutch's borderline frame of mind, Starsky continued.  "Callendar opened that can of worms again.  All the way.  And you couldn't escape the thoughts that came to tear you apart when you couldn't defend yourself.  That's why we're here now."  He patted the bed a couple times, as if trying to comfort them both.  "Do you think I don't know what's really going on here?  Ah, buddy, I know very well what's going on in that lovely blond head of yours.  I saw it startin' the night before your first symptoms appeared.  I saw you twisting and turning in the bed, as if you were trying to run away from something that was after you.  I knew what it was, who it was, that's why I wrote my name for you in the glass.  I knew I was the only one who could chase that ghoulie away."  He looked down, plagued by grief.  "But I couldn't be with you.  I had no choice but leave you alone with that bastard.  I was fighting for your life, and I figured we'd deal with him later, when you were safe."  He sighed once more.  "But I didn't count on the power that creep still had over you.  And I bet you didn't count on it either.  He attacked when you were most vulnerable and didn't stop until you gave up."  His voice almost choked, but he caught himself in time.

"Starsky..."  the immeasurable torment in that wail said it all, and Starsky felt his heart bleeding in empathic reaction.  Together, even when they were at odds with each other.  Always feeling what the other felt, knowing what the other thought; always deep in each other's souls.  And there was no place on Earth Dave Starsky would rather be.

"I know, buddy.  I know," he reassured gently.  "He sneaked in your sleep, when you were feverish and scared, and he spouted his age-old shit about what a fool you had been to love so much and entrust your feelings to another, only to find yourself abandoned on your deathbed."

Hutch shuddered brutally under the sheets, and immediately, Starsky's body reacted with a shudder of its own.

"He told you that's the way things are in this world, that love's a fool's illusion, that a real man is self-reliant and doesn't need others to comfort him and hold his hand when he's hurting.  I bet he sounded almost caring when he told you that you could've spared yourself all the pain you went through at the hospital.  If you had never allowed yourself to care that much, you would've died in peace, cause you'd have no deep emotional attachments.  And you believed him, didn't you?  It hurt so much that those words felt like the perfect release from your pain.  Nothing we had shared before mattered.  All the years of partnership and commitment weren't important.  What counted was the hours you were lying alone in bed, reaching for me...  and not finding me there."

The image of a slowly fading Hutch filled Starsky's mind.  It was an image that had haunted him for weeks now, vivid and enduring.  Hutch, his Hutch, the man-child he had cradled in his arms so many times before, dying a long, agonizing death, alone in a barren hospital bed. 

Needing a distraction from that horrifying image, if only momentarily, Starsky's mind conjured up dozens of both painful and joyful, but always precious memories.  Moments they had spent in each other's arms, letting their bodies speak the language only the two of them knew.  Like one dark night in a small hotel room in Duluth, when he had comforted his broken partner after attending his grandmother's funeral; a strung-out Hutch clinging to his shirt like a terrified child, begging him for help; a tipsy Hutch succumbing to sleep with his head on his lap while they watched the Lakers-Celtics game; Hutch casually resting his chin on his shoulder while he watched him ordering breakfast at Pancho Villa's and shaking his head patronizingly at the sight of his choice...  Thousands of moments of intimacy the blond had ended up taking for granted, only to have them taken away from him when he had needed it the most, when his life was coming to an end.

Starsky closed his eyes against the recurrent images.  A deathly pale Hutch, his weakened body drenched in sweat, coughing his lungs out, moaning his name over and over, isolated from all human touch in a sterile oxygen tent, and with his mind burning with fever-induced hallucinations that loomed over him like vultures, trying to kill his soul before his body followed it.  He shook his head.  For a second, he had seen those images in his mind's eye, he had felt Hutch's stark terror that only Starsky could soothe, and his worst nightmare of all coming true: not having Starsky by his side. 

"Do ya think I can't imagine what you went through those hours in the isolation room?" he almost spat.  "You think I don't know how you felt?  With your father cornering you and telling you all that crap about feelings not being worth it if this was all you'd have in the end?  Crying out for me, begging me to make your father go and prove him wrong with the touch of my hand, and receiving no answer?  To have me failing you?"  Starsky paid no attention to the tears that rolled down his face.  "I understand why you sent me away when I finally dropped by.  It was too late already, wasn't it?  The fucking bastard had already won and you were disappointed in me for proving him right."

Hutch had never felt so much cold.  It was permeating his bones and freezing every part of him from the inside out.  But Starsky was sliding inside him and fighting the coldness in his soul with the sweet, soothing and overwhelming warmth that was his love.  Always there for him, a rock to lean on, his only constant in this unforgiving world.  Stronger than ever, obstinately battling his father's presence inside him, never surrendering.  And yet, he still felt the need to resist.  It had been too much, more than he could bear.  His father had broken him.  It had been so easy once he had begun to understand his old man's point of view!  It sounded so logical, it made so much sense!  But now, coming from Starsky's lips, it sounded like a blasphemy, an aberration, a perversion.

He heard a harsh sniffling sound behind him and he knew that his tough, thorough hater of soapy scenes partner was fighting back tears.  A searing pain raked through his body.  He knew that pain.  It was Starsky's pain he was feeling.  He had felt it a thousand times before.  It was the pain you feel when you care about someone more than you care about your own life.  No!  It couldn't be!  Starsky was...  NO!  He was fighting his father from inside him and he was winning!  Hutch pounded the pillow in seething anger, angrier than he would ever be.  Angry at Starsky for softening him and bringing him back to a world of feelings that hurt...  and at himself for causing his partner a moment's pain.

"But how do you think it was for me, buddy?  Huh?"  Starsky's voice went on, suddenly filled with painfully detached contempt.  "Until now, we had always fought our battles together, even if it was only one of us who was hurting.  We had always touched during those times.  And now, for the first time, I couldn't be with you.  I was cut off from you, searching for a creep I couldn't've cared less if he had been just another turkey to arrest.  But that man was your life, so he became my life too."  He looked down.  "I know that you understand why I couldn't be with you.  But sometimes, even though our minds know, our hearts aren't so smart.  Your heart only knew you were sick, you were dying...  Dying!"  Starsky clenched his fists in helplessness.  "You knew that your time was runnin' out and every minute that passed was one minute less you had in this world.  You wanted comfort, you needed me as you had never needed me before, and you were isolated in a room like a leper.  You only wanted me with you and I wasn't there.  I-wasn't-there!"  Starsky swallowed heavily, experiencing through his own words the fathomless depth of the agony and horror his partner had suffered.  Every person's greatest fear, to die alone, had very nearly come true for Hutch.  No human being deserved such a death, and it had been doubly unbearable for his friend after all the love they'd shared in the past.  It was no wonder his old man had visited him in his delirium and offered him the most painless way out for the inhuman end he was facing.

Yes, he could understand Hutch, but that didn't mean his partner was doing the right thing now.  Not in the least!  Hutch was condemning them both to a life that wasn't worth living, a life without each other, without each other's love to make this unfair world mildly bearable.  He knew Hutch knew, but his Blintz had reached his breaking point.  Hutch felt he couldn't go on like this anymore.  Caring too much, so much.  This nightmare had killed something inside him and now Starsky had to put his friend's pieces back together, as they had done for each other quite a few times by now.

Hutch's words about them having to tone down their relationship, step back from their closeness and stop living in each other's pockets made terrible sense now.  They hadn't been a smokescreen, they had been the deadly honest truth.  Hutch was truly losing himself in their partnership.  He couldn't keep on caring that much and remaining sane.  Or so he thought.

Starsky had to convince him that love was the only way.  Hutch had believed it himself until mere days ago.  What kind of twisted psychological shit would his partner have uncovered from his past to make him turn his back on a lifetime of undying faith and fulfillment as the years they had shared together?

'You won't have him, you fucking bastard!  Hutch is mine.  Mine!  And I won't ever let him go!  You have no right over him.  You never had it!  You renounced that right when you denied him the love he deserved.  The day you told him that feelings had to be scorned and hidden because they were bad taste and improper.  You hard-hearted, cold-blooded creep!  How could a fucker like you give life to someone as beautiful and perfect as my Hutch?  How could you reject him?  How-could-you, you God-damned monster?  No, I won't let you have him!  He belongs to me, just as I belong to him.  He's mine and I'm his.  He's my partner!  He's everything!  You won't take him away from me!  Not for as long as I live!'

Starsky's teeth gritted in anger, but he forced himself to calm down and fill his heart with all the love and affection his friend inspired.  That was easy.  The mere thought of his partner's name made him weak at the knees.  "So, your father convinced you that the best way to stop hurting so much was to stop caring too much.  If love could hurt so deeply, you'd be much better without it, right?  It took him a few decades, but he finally made you like him.  That's why you've started saying all that crap about us having to tone it down, step back a little and blah, blah, blah."  Starsky took a deep breath and his whole being seemed to reach out and encompass Hutch.  "But you see, buddy.  Your father never knew he'd have to face me first, and I'll die before seeing you become like him.  I'm a man of few words, but a desperate situation calls for desperate measures.  I've set my mind on getting you back, and I'll keep on talking until hell freezes over if I have to, but I *will* have you back.  You can yell at me, insult me and hit me if you want, but I'm not gonna give up, partner.  I'll never give *you* up, cause without you there's nothing out there for me."

Hutch hissed.  He wanted to die.  He couldn't stand this.  It was killing him!

"You call this dependency.  You say this isn't healthy and that there could come a time when it'd destroy us.  Well, maybe that's your truth, now; but you can bet it's not my truth.  Our partnership is the most beautiful thing that's ever happened to me and I'm not gonna let it go.  This partnership has saved our lives and our sanity more times than I can count.  It's saved us when everything around us was falling apart.  If that's dangerous or unhealthy, I don't give a shit, you got me?  This relationship works for me and I don't care what a million shrinks may think.  It's us, Hutch.  Us."  He smiled softly.  "And it works for you too; then, now and forever, even if you're trying to deny it.  Who gives a damn about the world's opinion?  What do they know?  What do they care?  This is us, it's our truth, and it's good.  This is right for us and that's all we should care about.  So don't bother to spare me, cause I have nothing to fear, as do you.  Our friendship is our strength, it helped us to face your folks, my own demons and it helped us to survive after Terry and Gillian...  and so many other things."

Starsky stopped for a moment.  He needed a pause to get over all the images and feelings that had assaulted him after mentioning their two star-crossed ladies.  He swallowed the bitterly painful lump in his throat and blinked back fresh tears.  But he continued relentlessly.  He wouldn't stop until Hutch responded to him.  He would give Hutch not even a minute's rest.  Not until he gave up on this stupid and cruelly unfair punishment he had inflicted on them both. 

"Your dad said that love was a weakling's dream, not a real man's thing.  And you believed him.  How could you buy that beats me, but you did.  But think now, Hutch.  Think!  Remember Prudholm, the goons at the Italian restaurant, Vic Bellamy, Simon Marcus.  If those are the words and actions of a love-driven fool then marry me, buddy, cause I couldn't be in safer hands."  He tilted his head in an endearing gesture, watching his partner's rigidly still form and the lovely head trying to bury itself in the pillow.  He knew his words were getting through at last. 

"You're a survivor, partner.  You've been through things that would've broken the bravest man.  Forest...," his voice quivered with the seething anger and infinite pain that name would be forever linked to, "Grossman, Solkin, Humphries...", he shuddered at the terrifying coincidence.  "God, another time you had to face death alone in that canyon.  But you survived cause you knew I'd find you."  He looked at the silky hair splayed on the pillow, longing to reach out and feel it between his fingers.  He craved to give and receive comfort from that pure, simple touch.  "You're the strongest man I've ever met.  None of those creeps managed to break you."  His gaze softened with the adoration and admiration he was feeling.  "You never let the underworld we face every day get to ya.  Oh, I have eyes and I know the price you pay for every soul we lose.  But every soul we save gives your faith back.  We're each other's strength, Hutch.  That's not a bad thing.  We're human beings and we all need to rely on each other.  No one's completely self-sufficient and anyone who tells you differently is a liar.  We'd die of loneliness if we had to face life alone.  I'd die without you and I don't consider myself a wimp.  But there always comes a time when life breaks us and gives us more than we can bear.  God knows we've had our share of those times.  And every close call brought us closer to each other cause we know how rare what we have is, and how easily we could lose it.  That's why we're all here, Hutch.  To be good to each other and see each other through.  That's all that counts in the long run.  It's not the end that matters, but the journey.  It's the journey that shapes and molds us." 

Starsky swallowed heavily and his voice dropped an octave, knowing only too well just how important his next words would be, to both of them.  "I'll never let you die alone, Hutch.  I promise.  Don't ever be afraid cause I'll be with you until the end and beyond.  Forever and ever.  I wasn't with you this time because it wasn't your time.  That's why."  He smiled, knowing in his heart just how true his words were, and knowing that Hutch also felt it.

Hutch let out a breathless gasp.  Something inside him was beginning to crumble.  A soft tremor was tearing the walls he had hurriedly built around his badly bruised and bleeding heart, trying to protect himself from the love that hurt so much.  Those walls would have stood against anything, he was certain of that.  Anything...  but Starsky's affection.  The truth of his friend's words and the power of his love were bringing down the shields that no one else in the world would have ever been able to crack.

"Don't shut me out now, Blintz," the voice felt like a warm and loving caress.  "I know you right down to your soul.  You can try and kick me out of your life, but a part of me'll always stay with you.  I'm part of you, Hutch, just like you're part of me.  The best part of me.  You complete me, and you know it's the same for you.  So, I'm not gonna tone it down and step back a little, cause this relationship is my life, partner.  I know the treasure that's that big heart of yours and I won't let you kill it!  You hear me?"  He raised his voice forcefully, as if daring Hutch to defy him.

Hutch's body began trembling in earnest then.  He felt as if Starsky's voice had ripped from him something dark and ugly and thrown it away.  He bit his fist in a futile attempt to hold back the tears that were trying to explode from him.  He felt sick; sick and scared.  He had never felt so much cold.  Not even in the isolation room, when he had broken all fever records and the deadliest chills and fits of coughing had tortured him for hours, had he felt so cold.  The armor of pride, aloofness and detachment he had wrapped himself in, suddenly burned to ashes and lay at his feet like dust, leaving in its wake a broken human being in desperate need of comfort.

How had Starsky done it?  How?!  How had he slipped inside him and drawn from him all the will to resist until his last breath, as he had been ready to do?  When had he done that?  Until just a heartbeat ago, he had been ready to fight Starsky's friendly advances with every bit of strength he held.  And now he felt exposed, naked and vulnerable like a child.  A child who was only too aware of the cruel, unnecessary harm he had caused to the most innocent person.  The person who loved him as his own parents never had.

The avalanche of overwhelming feelings swept him away and almost drowned him.  He lurched forward in a sudden wave of nausea.  Only Starsky could make everything right again.  A tiny moan escaped his throat.  A deeply ashamed cry for undeserved help.

"I made a deal with God, you know?" Starsky said out of the blue, changing the subject abruptly.  His insides churned with all the pain he felt coming from Hutch.  He wanted nothing more than answer to the anguished plea for help that was tearing at his heart, but first he had to inflict the death blow to the monster that was holding his partner's soul hostage.  God willing, his ultimate truth would do.  "All the hours I was driving alone, looking at the empty seat beside me and at the back seat with all the empty cups of coffee you've thrown in there, I prayed like crazy for you to hold on.  I promised Him that if you made it, I'd tell you everything I feel for you, and I'd make sure that you knew."  He shook his head.  "Oh, I know you already know.  We've both known for years.  But I suddenly realized I never told you, partner.  You have, but I never came down to say the words.  And that's weird, cause I've never been shy about showing my feelings for you.  I know we don't need to get that mushy, but it hurt to know I never told you.  I mean, I say it to my mom every time I talk to her over the phone; I said it to my dad and Nicky; I said it to Helen and Terry and Rosey...  And yet, I never told *you*, my pig-headed, klutzy blond blintz.  And that's wrong.  If it hurt to think about it, that was cause it was wrong."  He bent forward and took a deep breath, silently apologizing to his friend for resorting to such downright unfair tactics.  "Come back to me, Hutch.  I need you.  I love you." 

Something inside Starsky seemed to bloom at that very moment.  As if the final door that had stayed closed since they met, had finally burst open.  An astonishing wave of insight and understanding came over him all at once.  When it faded away, he slowly nodded to himself.  "Just admitting that you need, that you love someone, is such an act of faith and courage!" he said in awe, looking away.  "You're so much braver than I, Hutch.  You said the words.  You always felt this free in your feelings for me."  Yes, they were more alike in this than he thought.  Hutch had cowered to his father's attack when he had been sick and hurting, but he had denied his partner this final joy, this ultimate gift of total freedom and trust.  He understood then how scary this level of love could be.  Scary enough to run away from it when the pain of it outweighed the joy.  Whenever it had begun to be more scary and painful than joyful to Hutch, it was his duty to give him that joy back.  He owed it to him.  He owed him the shelter of comfort and complete security he had offered him in his arms after Gillian's death.  Tears came to his eyes and fell in rivulets down his cheeks. 

He may have intended to break Hutch, but he had ended up breaking himself instead.  He had discovered a couple truths about himself he didn't expect to find.  And that was good.  This knowledge was going to help them both to make their relationship even more complete and perfect than it already was, as impossible as that could seem.  Sighing softly, he pushed a little bit further, silently begging his partner's forgiveness again.  "Please, don't leave me alone here with all this love I feel, Hutch.  I know I'm not playing fair, but as they say, everything's allowed in love and in war.  And I'm at war here.  My partner's soul's at stake and I intend to win.  I love you, Hutch."  He smiled tenderly.  "Jeeez, it's so beautiful to say...  I can't believe I've been such an ass all this time."

The spot where Hutch was resting his face was so wet with the tears that were suddenly running down his face, that it became a very uncomfortable sensation on his skin.  He was trembling like a leaf.  He bit his lips mercilessly, desperate to spare Starsky the pathetic sound of his crying.  He didn't think that Starsky was playing unfair, he only knew that it would be terribly unfair of him to show Starsky how much he needed him.  He didn't deserve his partner's comfort after the unforgivably cruel way he had behaved.  He had renounced that right, he had thrown it in his friend's face.  Besides...

"I know what you're thinking now,"  Starsky smiled through his own tears.  "You're desperate to let go, but you're feeling guilty after all the things you've said and done tonight.  'Sides, you're afraid that the king-size soapy scene that's coming's gonna put me off.  But don't you see, buddy?  That's what friends are for.  To stand by you forever, especially when you're wrong.  I need this too, Hutch.  Believe me.  I'm sorry if my attitude ever made you hold back your needs or your feelings.  I'll never forgive myself if I have." 

Starsky looked down in overwhelming shame, just knowing that his ocassional and ridiculous all-macho pose had caused his partner to hold back his need for tenderness more than once in the past.  How could he do it, knowing how Hutch's life had been before meeting him?  He had always loved to touch and cuddle and get all gentle with his partner.  He loved the sweet, safe and cozy world they sank in every time any, or both, of them needed comfort.  Why in hell had he repeatedly pointed out his dislike for soapy scenes when in fact, it wasn't true?  When all their years together had been a flagrant example of the contrary?  He wanted to bang his head against the wall.  His throat burned and he hunched up his shoulders, trying to make the searing pain stop.  But it was futile, without Hutch.  A few seconds later, when the agonizing wave of guilt and shame passed, he dared to look up at his partner's brutally trembling frame.  His own body shuddered in empathic reaction.  The need for physical comfort was unbearable now, but he ruthlessly forced it under control.  Not until Hutch was ready!  Folding his arms across his chest and holding his upper arms in an instinctive and useless attempt to seek solace, he went on reassuring his partner.  "You wanna know the real truth, Hutch?  The truth is that soapy scenes make me uncomfortable.  All of them but ours, buddy.  I love to get soapy with you.  Always have and always will.  I wouldn't have survived all our years together if I hated them, don't you think?" he smiled then, his entire being radiating warmth and playfulness.

Hutch let out a tiny choked sound.  He sniffled and wiped his tears away in the clammy pillow, in the loneliest, most heartbreaking display of need.  His eyes stung and throbbed with the million tears that still remained unshed.

"Nobody's perfect," Starsky assured him, his heart constricting with pain and need.  He couldn't stand seeing Hutch like this.  He was trembling from head to foot with the earth-shattering need to crush Hutch to his chest.  "All of us carry our own burden, our own brand of shame and regret.  But we're all unique and special too.  You may think there's nothing special about you, that you're all fucked up and full of hang-ups.  But to me, there's nothing as beautiful and special as my Hutch.  My partner.  The only person in the world who puts up with me and my moods.  The best friend anyone could ever have, even when he's in dickhead mode."

The choked sound made itself known again and the bed started shaking softly under the weight of Hutch's inhumanly restrained emotions.

"You deserve everything I have to give and more, Hutch.  I chose you as my friend with all that came with it.  Knowing you made me a better person.  I'm the best person I can be thanks to you.  To your gentle influence and your love."  He smiled and his entire body seemed to glow with the all-encompassing love he felt.  "I'm ready to face all your demons.  I'm here to share, Hutch.  I know very well what's coming.  I provoked it intentionally cause you need this release.  We both need it."  He smiled self-depreciatingly.  "Maybe I need this more than you do."  His soothing accent seemed to stroke Hutch physically.  "I almost saw you die, Hutch.  Please, don't deny us this comfort.  Don't be afraid of letting your feelings go, cause I'm not.  I can take it, I always could, so don't hold back on me.  We've had enough of this shit your family dumped on you.  Let go of them, buddy; you don't need them.  I am here."  He reached out across the bed, even knowing that Hutch couldn't see his gesture.  "This is yours, partner."

The memory those final words triggered, made Hutch moan and choke on his tears.  He had reached the limit of his endurance and they both knew it.

"It's your move now.  Let it go and let me heal your scars.  You only have to say the words," was Starsky's final lure.

Loud, helpless crying was Starsky's only answer, and it made him rise to his feet and act on his impulses.

Relinquishing the ultimate shred of control he had left to the sound of that selfless, undemanding voice, Hutch opened the floodgates of his soul.  The tsunami of feelings that assaulted him terrified him to his very core.  Not even the evening he had broken down after Gillian's death had he felt such devastating feelings erupting inside him, ready to destroy him with their fierceness.  If that time had been sheer insanity, that was nothing compared to the raging beast that was closing in on him now.  There was no way he could survive this.  There was no escape, nowhere to go.  Only one person had the power to see him through this, safe and sane, if he didn't repel him with the sickening scene that was about to unfold.

If Starsky could forgive the unforgivable and still wanted to offer him the oh-so-dreamed of haven of his arms, maybe, just maybe, he could keep his sanity.  That curly-haired angel was the keeper of his being, his essence, everything that made him Ken Hutchinson, for better or worse.

His body convulsed in the bed, rebelling against his mind desperately.  The excruciating emotional pain, the chill that permeated his marrow, and the long denial of his suffering and need of comforting after the deep psychological trauma he had endured, caught up with him at last.  He couldn't stop his breakdown any more than he could deny his love for this man who had become his very reason to live.  With an animalistic cry, Hutch yielded.  Peripherically, he thought he heard soft, rushed sounds of rustling and clicking, but his body was way ahead of his mind to pay any real attention to those noises as it turned about in the bed, facing the only light in Hutch's world, the only human being worth living for.

The sight that greeted his eyes was of an almost completely undressed Starsky, quickly slipping into his bed just in T-shirt and shorts.

The two men stared at each other for an eternal moment in time, until Hutch's bleeding soul finally gave itself up.

"Touch me," he implored in a small, childlike voice.  "Hold me, please Starsk."  New tears rolled down his already soaked, deathly pale face.  Searing agony and raw need as he had never known before filled every word, every letter.  But he felt no shame begging like this.  How could he, when he was pleading with the only person in the universe who loved him and cherished him as he was?  Despite being who he was?

Starsky offered him the big, toothy grin that made every cell in his body sing, and opened his arms wide.

As a river flowing into the sea, Hutch fell into those arms as Starsky met him halfway.

The joint sound that left their throats was joy, peace and exulting happiness as they had never heard before, let alone coming from themselves.  It was almost orgasmic in its intensity and in the reaction it evoked from their touch-starved bodies.  They fell back in the bed, arms and legs immediately wrapping around each other's bodies, and they sought warmth and intimacy under the bedclothes.

Starsky instantly noticed the savage tremors racking the chilled body and started rubbing his hands all over it, trying to pass on to Hutch all the warmth in his own body.  Hutch let out a gasp of unadultered gratitude as he tried to lose himself in Starsky.  The big, cold hands grabbed a handful of his T-shirt and the wet face buried itself in his neck, soaking it with the tears that didn't seem to stop falling.

"Starsky!  Oh, Starsk!" the blond man moaned.

"I'm right here, baby.  All for you.  Whatever you need.  Anything you need!" Starsky exclaimed, responding in body and soul to the shy request in that voice.  He clasped Hutch to him with a strength that surprised them both.  His love for this man bordered on sheer madness.  He never wanted to let go!  He would never let go!

"Forgive me, Starsk.  Please, forgive me!"  Hutch cried out his foremost thought.

Starsky looked up and shook his head in shock and disbelief.  Even now...!  "It's okay," he whispered into he too cold little ear.  "Nothin' to forgive.  You gave yourself a harder time than you gave me."  He couldn't help himself and bestowed a tiny kiss on the lovely feature.  The body in his arms almost bucked in reaction.

"I thought I was gonna die alone.  I was so scared!  I needed you so much!" Hutch was letting it all out now.  There was no coherency or the slightest connection between his lines of thought.  Everything was coming out all at once.

"I know, I know.  I felt the same," Starsky reassured him.  "My car never felt so lonely and scary to me." He closed his eyes against the memory of those nightmarish hours and shivered brutally.  "Don't ever do that to me again, Blintz.  I couldn't stand it!"

Hutch slipped down his partner's body and nuzzled his T-shirt, pressing his face to the strong chest.  "I need you, Starsky.  I need you so!" He began rubbing his face against the soft cloth as if trying to disappear in him.  "Hold me.  Please, hold me tight and never let me go!"

"I won't.  I'll never let you go, Hutch.  I promise."  Starsky's arms closed protectively around the wildly trembling body, and he wished to have eight arms like an octopus so he could give his partner all the love and comfort he was craving and asking so miserably.  That big body suddenly felt tiny in his arms as it cuddled up to his chest, and for the first time, Starsky realized what was actually going on there.  He wasn't only holding an adult male.  He was holding and giving comfort to a little child who had never known the security of his parents' arms and love.

"Warm my soul, Starsk!" Hutch begged, pressing himself against Starsky's body from head to toe.  "Bring me back to life.  Hold me!" His crying was uncontrolled, inconsolable, infinitely worse than the disturbing evening at Gillian's apartment.  He was releasing a lifetime of pent-up emotions and neglected needs, and for one terrifying moment, Starsky feared he wouldn't be enough.

Immediately shaking the preposterous idea off his mind, he set on providing his beloved friend with everything he needed.  If he couldn't give this to Hutch, nobody would.  And he'd die before letting Hutch spend one single day without knowing all the honest, selfless love that Starsky had taken for granted since he was a little kid, but that had been completely denied to Hutch until they met.  "I'm here, partner, don't be afraid.  Let it go, we'll go through this together," he reassured as he wrapped his legs around Hutch's, and his body surged upward in a brutal spasm of need.  He needed to sublimate this fit of touching at least as much as Hutch did.  "You're safe here.  We both are.  Nothing's gonna hurt ya, Blondie." The endearment made him move one hand from the broad trembling back he was caressing endlessly to the fair head, and press it to his chest.  The soft strands of hair slid between his fingers and Starsky thought he had never touched anything so fine and perfect.  Bending his head, he caressed his own cheek with the velvety hair and kissed the cold forehead.

"I love you, Starsky!"  Hutch moaned.  "I won't doubt us ever again, I swear.  I won't let anything stand between us again, not even myself.  Forgive me for questioning what we have, for daring to doubt this gift we share.  I feel so unworthy now!"  More and more tears soaked Starsky's shirt.  Nothing seemed capable of soothing the overwhelming remorse, pain and guilt that were tearing him apart.

"Don't say that!" Starsky raised his voice, both in shock and anger.  "Your love is my greatest treasure and I won't let anyone belittle it, not even you!"  He took a deep, calming breath and went on, in the sweetest accent.  "It's not your fault.  You were sick and hurting and your biggest fear caught up with ya.  But I forced some sense back into this silly blond head and everything's right again.  Look at us now.  You finally got me to admit that I love to get soapy with you.  I pray you'll let me live that down."  He smiled knowingly.

Hutch let out a choked sound in the midst of his full-fledged crying.  "Never!  I'll never let you live it down," he promised, burying his face in the only home he had ever known.  He started sniffing at his partner's scent, filling his lungs with it and finding it the most comforting and calming scent in the world.  It brought so much peace to his soul that he almost felt faint.  Nothing could harm him here, no power on Earth was strong enough to hurt him as long as he was in the strong, all-powerful circle of his partner's love.

Starsky laughed softly.  "I knew you'd say that.  I'm not sure I wanna live it down, though.  It feels too good in here," he said in all honesty, cuddling the long body as a parent would a baby.  Instinctively, he began a soft rocking motion, trying to ease the rawer edges of his friend's bone-chilling paroxysm.  His hands moved again all over the broad back, feeling its coldness through the thin pajamas.  He alternated stroking it with his fingertips and pressing it overwhelmingly against his breast seconds later.

Hutch couldn't keep still.  His cold hands couldn't relinquish their hold on Starsky's shirt.  He was undulating against the smaller, warmer body compulsively, desperate for a little warmth.  His long legs wrapped themselves around Starsky's, almost getting tied up in knots, and his flushed face nuzzled the strong, muscular chest, never having enough of its strength and cozyness.  He felt like a baby bird in its nest.  He had never felt so safe, so absolutely at peace.  For the second time in his life, he knew what total safety was like.  He understood how a newborn felt in its parents' arms.  He felt a wave of the purest, most soothing warmth reaching out from Starsky's body and enveloping him in it.  He could even smell that warmth!  It smelled of love and tenderness and sweet compassion.  It was made of something bigger than his very life.  Bigger than both their lives.  He buried himself in it, wishing he'd never come out. 

Starsky felt as if he was cuddling a wounded cub in his arms.  He had never felt anything like the feeling that was surging up from deep inside him.  It brought a lump to his throat and his eyes filled with painfully helpless tears.  The images of Hutch, twisting and turning in his bed, fighting the demons from his past for all he was worth, knowing he couldn't escape, and of his dying partner throwing him out of the room before being put in an oxygen tent, thus furthering the total isolation of his body and soul and effectively shutting him out from any human touch, assaulted him like a crushing tide.  Those memories had been branded forever on his brain, and they would hurt for as long as he lived.  With a choked groan of anguish, Starsky held the neverending trembling body to him, just as Hutch pressed desperately against him, prey to the same barrage of memories.  Their worst nightmare had come alive and this was the only antidote for it, the only medicine that could heal it all.

Not another word was spoken as they let their bodies take their fill of the long denied and so longed for physical contact.  It felt so pleasurable and soulfilling they smiled through their moaning and their tears.  They basked in the glory of their love and felt something inside them glowing like the moon in the midnight sky.

Unexpectedly, Hutch's trembling worsened, and Starsky moved his hand to the nape of his partner's neck and began tickling and massaging it lovingly.  He felt his big blond melting against him as new, powerful sobs racked his body.  "Shhhh, shhhh, it's okay, babe.  Everything's okay, now.  We're safe.  Just hold on to me and it'll pass.  We'll be okay soon, you'll see.  Shhhh..."  Starsky kissed the top of his friend's head.  "It's okay already.  This is all we need."  He smiled peacefully, knowing how true his words were.

Hutch nodded in his arms.  He wanted to stop crying, but he couldn't.  It was as if he was crying all the tears he had been holding back all his life.  Tears of years' judgment and scorn in a world of unfeeling coldness and propriety.  This was what living was about.  Loving, caring, holding and being held.  Being good to each other, being human.  He had always known.  How could he allow himself to forget it and fall so low?  How had he ended up following his father's teachings after all the years of knowing better?  Of knowing Starsky?  He felt so guilty and ashamed that the tears exploded from him anew, stronger than ever before.

It hurt to cry like this.  He wasn't used to it.  He was gasping and panting, breathless, aching all over; but still, he couldn't stop.  The more he tried to control it, the worse his crying got.  And every single time, it was as if Starsky was feeling him trying to control it, and he would hold him tighter and encourage him to let it all out.  And he obeyed.  He didn't question his partner's wisdom.  He followed it blindly, knowing that if it was the other way round, he would hold and take care of his friend with his every bit of strength.  As it had always been between them.  As it would always be.

Suddenly, a part of him realized that Starsky needed this just as much as he did.  Starsky had been cut off from him, not been allowed to touch him; unable to be with him when they had needed it the most.  He had been limited to looking at him through a glass window and touching him with a pair of gloves on.  Hutch put himself in Starsky's place, and the terrifying shiver that ran up and down his body almost felt like a convulsion.  "Oh, Starsk!", he cried out, wrapping his arms around the strong back and clasping it to him for dear life.  "I'm sorry.  I'm so sorry, babe!  Oh, God, I'm sorry!"

"I know, Hutch, I know.  It's okay."  Starsky reassured him, cuddling up to him with the same desperate intensity and need as Hutch.

How had he been able to forget his partner's needs?  How had he been able to neglect this man something he needed so badly?  God, this illness had fucked him up royally!  Almost climbing Starsky's body, Hutch grabbed the powerful shoulders and buried his face in the soft neck, whispering soothing, cooing words of his own, rejoicing in the knowledge that in the comforting of his partner he was comforting himself as well.  Starsky's happiness was his own, Starsky's life was his own.  Starsky was him. 

"Oh, Hutch!  Oh, my!" Starsky exclaimed with a moan of total surrender.  He went all soft in Hutch's arms, but never eased his stranglehold on the blond's body.

They caressed, hugged and whispered incoherent endearments into each other's ears.  They cried and smiled, losing completely track of time.  Who cared about the time, when they had everything they needed in their arms?

Breathing in the other's inebriating scent, the feeling was like seventh heaven.  They couldn't stop their bodies from rubbing and undulating against each other.  They thoroughly satisfied their need of each other's touch and yet, it wasn't nearly enough.  It was never enough.  Their hands moved up and down one another's backs and sides and necks and hair.  They were still trembling, only not in such raw need anymore, but in overwhelming bliss and fulfillment.  The insanity of their first embrace had slowly turned into the tenderest stroking and worshipping of each other's beings.  They had never experienced anything like that.  They never wanted to let go.

"Beautiful," Starsky muttered to himself.

"So beautiful," Hutch murmured at the same time.

Hearing the same words from each other, they smiled sweetly and Starsky nuzzled the silky hair behind Hutch's ear that was tickling his face delightfully.  Hutch bestowed the softest kiss on his partner's cheek in answer.  Their tiny sigh of utter joy resounded all over the room like a thunder.  Everything was peace and contentment around and inside them.  Especially inside them.  This was how it was supposed to be between them. 

And it still wasn't enough.

Starsky felt his partner kissing him shyly on the cheek again, and exploding with love and tenderness, he took the blond head in his hands.  They stared at each other for a long moment.

"No more 'we have to tone it down'?" Starsky finally asked with a twinkle in his eyes.

Blushing to the roots of his hair, Hutch shook his head.

"No more 'we should step back a little'?"

Hutch shook his head again, his face turning a bright crimson.

"No more 'this closeness we share is dangerous and unhealthy'?"

For the third time, Hutch shook his head.

"No more 'we should stop living in each other's pockets and on each other's couches'?"

Starsky's heart was blossoming with something new and wondrous.  Something momentous was about to happen, he could feel it.  Something that was making his blood sing in anticipation.  Hutch watched him, his expression suddenly expectant and more intense than he had ever seen.  His eyes bored into Starsky's, reaching into his very soul.  Starsky opened his heart wide, letting his partner look for anything he wanted, reach into him as deeply as he wished.  It was so beautiful to communicate like this!

It was closer and closer.

Whatever Hutch saw within him made him let out a long, peaceful sigh, and bending his head, he dropped a devoted, heart-stopping kiss on the center of Starsky's chest.  Then, he looked up again and met his friend's flashing eyes.

"No, Starsk," his accent raised goosebumps all over their bodies.  "Never again."

Starsky's hold on his partner's head intensified all of a sudden.  The entire world seemed to stand still, as the curly-haired man entered Hutch's soul through his eyes.  Then, oh-so-slowly, Starsky's thumbs wiped away the wet tear tracks down Hutch's cheeks and without thinking, he brought the blond head closer and planted the sweetest, most loving kiss on the heartbreakingly pouted lips.

When they moved back, they opened eyes they didn't realize had closed.  They were popping out of their sockets, as the implications of what they had just done made themselves apparent.

The ultimate truth had just been uncovered.  The final blinder came off. 

They saw it all and they understood it all.  Everything made perfect sense, now.  The strange restlessness that had come over them lately; the growing need for each other's closeness that never seemed to be enough; the compulsive need to be together as much time as possible; their staying at each other's place more and more often; the inexplicable sexual apathy that had befallen them...  it was as if the sun had come out after a long time of darkness.  A darkness they hadn't even noticed that was there.  They saw the truth dawning in each other's eyes at the same time, and they were momentarily stunned by it.

Hutch was the first to react.  He brought one hand up and began sliding his fingers all over Starsky's cheek experimentally, as if trying to comprehend what this new discovery meant.  He wiped away his partner's tear tracks and then, he moved further up and his fingertips caressed the half-closed eyelids and the incredibly long eyelashes.  His thumbpad felt the dark eyebrow and drew a circle all around Starsky's face, mapping every little feature.  As he did, a sweet, radiant smile lit up his face, in wondrous understanding.

Following his dearest friend's example, Starsky's fingers splayed on the still flushed face and caressed it all over.  He carded his fingers through the silky hair that had him completely mesmerized.  His thumbs stroked the baby soft cheeks, the blue eyes that closed languidly, allowing him all the exploration he desired.  The eyelashes were so blond they were almost invisible.  He felt as if his fingertips were being caressed by an invisible touch that made him tremble from the sheer ethereal beauty of it.  Hutch's eyes opened and for the first time, Starsky saw himself reflected in them.  What he saw there drove all rational thought from his mind.  He saw himself smiling with more happiness than he had ever seen on his face. 

The final question had been answered.  The only question that mattered in life.  And Hutch reaffirmed the absolute certainty of his discovery by bending slowly forward and depositing the most reverent kiss on his tingling lips.  There was no tentativeness or hesitation in the kiss.  Only affirmation, childlike curiosity and more love and trust than Starsky had ever felt coming from another human being.

When Hutch moved back, he opened his eyes, and Starsky's mouth fell open.  They were swimming with unshed tears that gave them an eerie living quality.  The surface of that perfect blue rippled like the soft waves of a pond.  But they were happy tears, he felt.  The happiest tears.  The same tears that were streaming down his own face and Hutch hurried to wipe away with his long, gentle fingers.

It should feel strange.  It should feel awkward being like this, doing this with another man.  But it wasn't.  It was the first time he had kissed and been kissed by another man, and yet, nothing had ever felt so right.  This was no stranger.  This was Hutch.  His best friend Hutch.  The man he knew inside out, physically and emotionally.  They had just added a new dimension to their all-encompassing intimacy, that was all.  Spiritually, they were closer to each other than any lovemaking they ever attempted.  No sexual relationship would bring them closer to one another than they already were.  And yet, it was as if the final piece of their vital puzzle had fit at last.  This was what had been missing.  Everything was out in the open now, waiting for them to make the final decision.

And in their eyes, they saw there was no decision to make.  It had been made long ago, when they had accepted each other with all the consequences, loved one another unconditionally, taken each other in their hearts and sworn to protect and cherish one another for as long as they lived.  It would be silly to look for that last bit of intimacy in someone else.  They could have everything in one beautiful, perfect package.

They saw the decision being made in each other's minds and they smiled in awe of their complete togetherness, their total harmony of thoughts and feelings. 

Starsky carefully settled the lovely head back on his chest and Hutch sighed in bliss, kissing him there once more.  A delicious shiver racked his body from head to foot.  Feeling it, Hutch rained dozens of passionate little kisses all over the covered skin that all of a sudden, he needed to feel against his own like the very air he breathed.  Starsky wrapped his arms around his partner with a groan.  His right hand pressed the beloved head to his chest and his left arm anchored the long body to his own, not allowing one inch of separation between them from top to toe.

"I'm not cold anymore," Hutch suddenly said, burying his face in the strong breast and sniffing at it like a cub.

"Me neither," Starsky replied, smiling beatifically.

"It doesn't hurt anymore," the wonder and mystery in the soft voice made Starsky feel like crying at the awesome miracle they had accomplished, together.

"No, it doesn't."  Starsky bent down and showered the ruffled hair with so many kisses that Hutch burst out giggling with the clean innocence of a child.  "My big blond beauty, beautiful baby blue boy," he whispered from the bottom of his full to bursting heart.

Hutch let out a choked sound and cuddled up to him as if wanting to crawl right into his soul.  "My gorgeous godsend, gentle, generous, gifted, gracious, gluttonous Gordo," he replied non-stop.

They laughed happily, hugging for all they were worth.  When the laughter subsided, they remained deep in each other's arms, revelling in the new side of the immeasurable feeling that had possessed them years ago. 

Such a drastic change in their lovestyle should feel confusing, bewildering at the very least, but they found no traces of those feelings inside them.  It felt natural, right, destined to be.  And they gave their most heartfelt thanks for this terrible crisis that had helped them to unveil the final truth, and find a whole new dimension to their love they had never considered before, but they had set out for since the day they met.  Their lives had taken a 180º turn and yet, they were still heading in the same direction.  Ahead.  Together.  Always together.

They roamed each other's bodies with long, languorous caresses, fulfilling all the needs they were free to satisfy now.

Wanting to prevent Hutch from going to sleep on his tears-and-snot-soaked T-shirt, Starsky rolled it up and took it off in one quick motion.  Hutch moved aside, holding onto his partner's hips, unable to give up the desperately craved for touch of the man he loved.  When the chore was completed, the two men looked down at the blond's covered torso.  Looking up into each other's eyes then, the two of them reached for the buttons of Hutch's pajama top and slowly, they unfastened them.

The paler than usual body still showed signs of the man's almost tragic ordeal.  Hutch had lost several pounds, and Starsky's heart constricted painfully.  The instinct for protection aroused in him fiercely, and taking the top off the broad shoulders tenderly and dropping both useless garments onto the floor, he urged Hutch to lie back into his arms, tucking him up hurriedly.

The first touch of their naked skin pressing against each other was devastating in its intensity.  They felt dizzy, giddy with euphoria and more gloriously alive than they had ever felt.  Hutch rubbed his face all over the softest hair he had ever touched and nuzzled it playfully.  He felt electrified and deliciously enervated at the same time.  He wondered at how could such a foreign sensation - to rest his head on another man's hairy chest - feel so perfect and homey.

He stopped thinking.  It was time to feel, not think.  His partner's arms wrapped themselves around him protectively, and Hutch knew absolute, perfect safety in heart and soul, body and spirit, for the first time in his life.  Starsky's lips kissed his forehead, wordlessly encouraging him to let go.  Obeying the gentle suggestion without question, Hutch closed his eyes, and with his partner's powerful heartbeat resounding in his ear like a lullaby, surrendered to the most peaceful sleep he could remember.  His fingertips caressed the strong male chest endlessly, getting immediately addicted to its feel and touch.

When he saw his blond angel giving up to much needed sleep, and doing his best to control the feelings that Hutch's fondling was awakening in him, Starsky placed a final kiss onto the soft forehead, and with a soundless 'I love you', followed his soulmate into the most beautiful sleep he had ever known.

Hutch's lips formed the words 'I love you' in his sleep, and smiling at something they couldn't understand, just feel, the two men joined one another in the world of the sweetest dreams.  The land of dreams come true.