Summary: And forthwith cipher and show me to a cent, exactly the contents of one, and exactly the contents of two, and which is ahead? Starsky and Hutch.

AN: Many thanks to Phoebe, for betaing and giving me a much needed shot of confidence; and to Kass, for hand-holding and editing and putting this beautiful project together. And, as always, my dear friend Nicolas V, for everything. Title from Whitman. This was originally published in the zine Blood and Destiny.



Exactly the Contents of One
By Dorian



I


"Hey, who's driving?"

Hutch jangles his keys. "I am."

He pretends not to hear Starsky grumbling, just reaches across the seat and unlocks the door.

They hit the streets. It still feels a little strange, not having the black-and-white and the uniform and the big gold shield on his chest standing between him and the world, like he was walking around in riot gear for years and now he's not.

The day's smoggy and breathless, already in the mid-eighties with the weatherman promising worse tomorrow, but as long as they keep moving it's not so bad.

Starsky rolls down his window, cursing when it gets stuck halfway.

"Piece of junk. You know, Hutch, they got people whose whole livelihood is painting cars so they don't look like a slice of avocado that's been left out all night."

Hutch shrugs. He's not about to take advice from a guy who buys an eyesore and then has big white racing stripes put on it.

They're at the midpoint of porn row. Cool dark theatres would hold a certain appeal right now, Hutch thinks, even if they replaced the naked women with nature shows. He snorts and Starsky looks over at him, raising his eyebrows, asking what's funny.

"Nothing."

Starsky nods and turns back to scanning the streets.

Hutch likes that about working with Starsky, the way he's willing to take things at face value. He owes Luke a lot, but once the guy got hold of something he never knew when to let go.

"Busy today," he hears Starsky mutter, as though talking to himself and talking to Hutch doesn't require that great a distinction, and Hutch gets another of those odd flashes, like it should be a Saturday afternoon with Van down in San Diego for the weekend, Starsky and him on the couch with a couple of beers, shooting the breeze.

It's not a bad sensation, just strange.

"Hutch, look."

He glances at Starsky, follows his line of sight to the sidewalk. "Matchbook Johnny."

"
Yep. Large as life and twice as ugly."

"
With a couple warrants hanging over his head," Hutch adds as he switches lanes. Cars are parked all along the street up to the corner.

"Three warrants," Starsky says, like an afterthought. "Reno called back."

Hutch tosses him a look. "You might have told me."

"Well, I'm tellin' you now."

They get within half a block before Johnny looks up, nervous, sweeping the streets oh so casually. There's a jerky little hiccup in his stride, like a puzzled blink; and maybe he remembers the car, or recognizes Starsky, or maybe he's just wound up so tight anything at all is enough to make him scram, but his gait gets stiff with wanting to hurry and not letting himself and he ducks into the alley beyond Mack's Adult Novelty Shop. And just like that all the pieces click into place.

They'd made a possession bust here three weeks ago, the alley runs through. If Starsky --

"Hutch, if I --"

Starsky doesn't need to say it -- they both remember, both know what'll catch this guy -- and understanding flashes between them like tells in a poker game. The buzz jumping along his nerves is there in Starsky's tight grin and he sees his own surprise mirrored in Starsky's eyes, but there's no time for triumph or terror or whatever the hell this wordless synchronicity is making him feel.

One nod and he's slowing down. Starsky's got his door open, then he's gone with a slam and Hutch is turning the corner.

One block, the side street, pulling up to the curb, killing the engine.

Waiting.

And he can see Johnny: fast, throwing himself forward, head down -- there's years of his life on the line here. But Starsky's sprinting, closing the gap. Ten feet, eight feet, five . . .

Almost . . .

Johnny doesn't expect Hutch, doesn't see him until it's too late and then it's as easy as reaching out, snagging him, letting Johnny's own momentum slam him into the car.

"Surprise." Hutch kicks Johnny's legs further apart, ignoring the chorus of "Man, it's not what you think, man," and cuts him off with, "Come on, you know the drill. Spread 'em."

The rest is routine -- like any other arrest.

Like any other day.

Hutch closes the back door, leaving his hand pressed against the car for a long moment before he turns around, slowly. Starsky's bent over, breathing fast and deep, hands braced on his thighs. Hutch watches him -- blue work shirt open at the collar and crummy jeans, short hair that's trying to be curly -- and Starsky looks up, like the gaze was a nudge; grins wild and blazing, hopped up on the adrenaline rush. There's something free and expansive in his eyes, and a fierce sort of pride -- in Hutch, in himself, in the two of them together. And suddenly Hutch wants to drag Starsky close and kiss him, hard, closed mouth, just fast rough pressure, so he can jam all these wordless, buzzing things he feels into motion and friction and shove them against Starsky, closing the gap.

The alley stretches out behind them, Johnny's tucked into the back seat and Hutch leans against the side of the car, thumbs hooked into his pockets. "It worked."

Starsky's smile hitches, lopsided now, and he wipes his forehead against the side of his hand. "'Course it did."

Like he never had a doubt.


II


"What is that, anyway?"

Hutch swallows. "Kumquat."

"
Gesundheit."

He holds one out. "Go on. Live a little."

Starsky glances at it, measuring, deeply skeptical. Looks back at the road. "No thanks."

Hutch shrugs. Starsky's loss. They're great kumquats.

Not a bad morning either: a lazy breeze is coming in off the ocean, the sky's a nearly flawless white-blue and it's finally beginning to feel like spring. Hutch lets his head roll back, closes his eyes and allows himself just to be for a moment, not thinking about anything.

"That good, huh?" Starsky's voice is amused, indulgent almost.

"Hm?" Hutch doesn't open his eyes.

"Last night."

His night went just fine -- he's going to save Cindy's number, all right -- but that's not what's making him feel so good.

"Sure," Hutch says, approximating, not certain he wants to talk about this, not certain sharing it with Starsky won't spoil what he's feeling somehow. Quietness settles between them, faint radio static and Starsky tapping his thumb against the wheel at red lights.

An all-units crackles in: Caucasian male, blond, 6'2" and 160 lbs. Armed and dangerous, last seen near Jefferson and Union. Starsky's already got them in a tire-squealing turn and Hutch braces himself against the dashboard as he reaches down for the handset.

A 10-33 comes in just as his fingers brush against the Mars light under the seat -- officer down -- and all of a sudden it's a different game, so when Starsky takes a corner too fast, nearly wrapping them around a telephone pole, Hutch presses his lips together and just grips the door frame harder.

They come on the black-and-white in front of a run-down apartment complex. A detached part of Hutch's mind notices that it looks like the sort of place built cheap in the thirties and falling down slowly ever since; four stories and the fire escape on the west side, dropping into a narrow alley -- at the same time recognizing Harper in the squad car, door open, blood all over his hands, and his leg dragging on the ground, awkward, like he couldn't lift it into the car.

Which means that it's Joe slumped against the fender, big piece of his face missing.

Starsky's out of the car, so close Hutch can almost feel him vibrating with contained motion, asking for a report.

"Lost him." Harper's just staring through the windshield, not blinking. "Don't know where he went. Saw Joey go down and . . ."

Three minutes, at least, since the call. The guy's gone. Hutch catches Starsky's eye, sees his frustration at having to sit on their tails waiting for backup, but this is going to be a canvas job. Rushing off without a direction isn't going to do any good so Hutch does what he can, crouching down by the open door.

"Let me see this, huh?" It's bad enough, but looks like no nicked arteries. Harper's not going to bleed out before the ambulance gets here and knows it.

"I'm fine, fine, Hutch. Just shattered my knee cap." He laughs and wipes at his face, leaving big red streaks. He's crying, quietly.

Joe'n Harp had been partners for years when Hutch was still spit-polishing his shoes and shining his badge each morning.

Hutch is reaching out for his shoulder, knowing there aren't words for this, when there's a gunshot, two of them, close, inside the building, that has both Starsky and him on their feet and moving.

"Watch it!" Harper's words are flung at their backs, mixed up with the third and fourth shots. "That fucker's on something or crazy."

They find the first body three stories up, on the landing: head-shot, chest-shot; a paper bag of groceries on the floor; blood on the wall. The second's the next up, in the doorway that leads to a long dim hall, shot in the back. Hutch sees doors opening, faces peering out. Starsky's yelling at them to get the hell inside and Hutch is scrabbling for his badge, for a second missing the damned uniform.

A distorted, wordless scream echoes in the stairwell behind them, up the last flight of steps -- there's only the roof above them and none of what this guy is doing makes any sort of sense. On the other side of the doorway Starsky is tense and scared and rock-steady. A nod and Hutch has the door open and it all starts going very fast -- feeling Starsky move, following at his signal, pressing up against the hot metal of a utility shed. Starsky catches his glance and motions he's going left; Hutch nods and goes right, keeping low, working towards the fire escape.

If the guy's sane that's the only place he'd be heading and Hutch looks down over the edge, but there's no one which means . . .

He realizes suddenly he doesn't know Starsky's position, can't feel where he is. And it's a shock -- should he call out? -- because this hasn't happened before, not with Starsky. Then shots, behind him, spaced so close they almost overlap. Ducking is instinctual -- find cover -- but what he needs to find is Starsky and he's not moving fast enough, downstairs half of Joe's face is missing and . . .

"Clear! Hutch, it's clear."

The other side of the roof, behind the cooling unit. Starsky's leaning against it, eyes closed. Perp's down. Hutch stops, scrubs at his mouth, feeling weightless with relief, with the slack absence of tension that used to make him double over sick sometimes, and inside his head he can still hear big Mike Ferguson, sneering, telling him to get over himself, kid, happens to everyone.

Starsky opens his eyes, looks at Hutch and it's there, Hutch can see that Starsky lost track of him, too.

Starsky grimaces and glances at his arm, right above the elbow.

"And this was my favorite jacket." Which Hutch knows isn't true, but Starsky needs to grab onto something that'll cut all this down to a size he can deal with out loud.

"Bad?"

Starsky shakes his head, but Hutch has to check anyway. And it's not much, hardly even a crease -- too small and shallow to need stitches.

Starsky pulls his arm away and picks at the tear in his windbreaker, still grousing. But his hands are shaking with fine, almost invisible tremors.

They'd lost track of each other. Starsky might have hesitated just a fraction of a second too long and then . . .

But Hutch knows what's playing, relentless and vivid, inside Starsky's head: the faint scrape of footsteps, the impression of movement, of sunlight off metal, the kick of the gun in his hands, only it's Hutch lying there bleeding and lifeless -- not just some other blond, thin white guy in a plaid shirt.

A fraction of a second.

Give or take.

Hutch reaches out, grasps Starsky's wrist, intensely aware of Starsky's pulse against his fingertips.

Neither of them is dumb enough to think it's impossible, even though they're each good. And together, better.

You don't trust your partner because he could never screw up.

"Hey." Hutch jiggles Starsky's wrist, just a little. And Starsky looks up sharply, intent, and there's something behind his eyes that Hutch hasn't seen in a long time; reminds him instantly of circling each other way back when and the long, still moment that stretched out between them before the first time Starsky offered him a hand up.

Hutch doesn't understand, but he knows it's vital not to look away.

All around them is the bleached white roof of just another run-down building, a couple of stories above the endless bustle of the streets, spread out under the vast openness of the sky. A pause followed by a tiny motion forward, a shift in balance, and Starsky lets his head drop against Hutch's shoulder; sags just a little, pulling himself together, letting Hutch take a bit of his weight. And what Hutch needs is to feel Starsky, alive and with him, so he rests his hand on Starsky's back, between his shoulder blades, and Starsky, who isn't the world's most touchy-feely sort of guy, just relaxes into the contact and lets him.

Hutch feels the sun against the back of his neck, the top of his head. Smells traces of gun powder, sweat, Starsky's aftershave. There's a tug of the sea breeze against his hair and his clothing and it carries the heavy tang of blood. His lips happen to brush the side of Starsky's forehead, just by chance, and he wants to repeat the motion, faint pressure like a whispered litany of I'm here. I'm safe. We're safe.

I'm here.


Hutch shuts his eyes and listens to Starsky breathe; hears in the distance the faint sound of far-off sirens.


III


"What time is it, Hutch?"

"One-thirty."

"
God, it's been Saturday for over an hour. How long we been up?"

Hutch rubs his eyes. "We're better off not thinking about it."

The squad room's empty, nobody here but the two of them and a chunk of records. Starsky's perched up on the back of his chair, elbows on knees, with a day-and-a-half worth of stubble and clothing rumpled from a catnap hours ago. They're both a mess, look it, smell it.

Starsky yawns against the back of his hand. "How many you got left?"

Hutch glances at his stack. "Too many."

"
And what're we looking for?" The edge of a whine that's creeping in means Starsky's getting bored -- tired and frustrated -- and Hutch decides to play along.

"I'll be damned if I know. Maybe we'll remember when we see it."

It's too close to the truth. Hutch rubs at his eyes again, though it doesn't help. There are a couple of swallows in his mug, bitter and nasty. He grimaces and knocks them back, so damn sick of gut-rot, and gets up for another cup anyway.

"Hand me your mug, Starsk."

"Nah, just bring the whole thing. We're gonna need it." Starsky glowers at the files like he's going to remember each one and God help them if they ever cross his path again. It's an expression that works pretty well on low-life punks and is wasted on manila folders and mug sheets.

The coffee's taking forever to percolate, and if that light above their desk starts flickering again, Hutch won't be held responsible for his actions. Starsky tosses his file at the table and searches around for his stack of dimes. "Wanna candy bar or something?"

"Did I the last half-dozen times you asked?"

Starsky looks back over his shoulder and smiles faintly, mostly around his eyes. "No, but I keep hoping." He slides off his seat almost into Hutch, and they both go left, then right. Stop.

Starsky's mouth quirks. "If you wanted to dance, babe, all you had to do was ask."

Hutch draws himself out of his faint habitual slouch, coffee pot in hand. "Nobody dips me twice."

Starsky starts to speak, but Hutch throws up a finger.

"No. No Ramón. It's too late at night for what you apparently think is a Spanish accent."

Starsky looks hurt, briefly, trying to hide it, eyes limpidly guileless.

Hutch hasn't fallen for that one in years. He pats Starsky on the shoulder and steps around him, goes back to his old friend Johnson, Joseph T. There's the muffled thump of Starsky hitting the candy machine, and then he's back on the other side of the desk, absently breaking a Hershey's bar into pieces, managing to make a whole lot of noise with each snap. It's irritating, like the way Starsky licks chocolate off his fingers and wipes his hands on his jeans.

"What would we do without sugar and caffeine?" Starsky's tone would be just the same if he was talking about electricity and running water.

"Have a better shot at reaching fifty?"

Starsky's suddenly staring intently at the file in his hands. "Thought you were aiming higher than that."

Hutch opens his mouth but there's a yell in the hallway and a couple of uniforms drag a wino towards booking, leaving a trail of slurred obscenities, and the moment's past.

Watching the clock only reminds Hutch that in a more perfect world he wouldn't be here right now, so he watches Starsky and the height of his 'done and nothing there' pile instead.

The last stack is over on Frank's desk. Hutch stands carefully, feeling a warning twinge in his back, and scoops them up, settling on the edge of the desk next to Starsky. He's tired of being all folded up in cars and chairs. A few hours ago, all he wanted was to go home and disappear into next week. Now he wonders if he'll be able to sleep at all. Ask me when my head hits the pillow is what Starsky would say to that.

They have some serious comp time coming and maybe he'll talk Starsky into going fishing. It would do them some good to get out of the city for a while, away from the noise and smog and the sort of crazies that make pulling round-the-clockers necessary.

Just the two of them, off somewhere.

The feeling's so gradual, he doesn't notice at first, until it's just there and he wants to lift his hand to Starsky's face, trace the shape of Starsky's mouth, lean into the warm, comfortable space between them and . . .

The squad room around them is very quiet, just the hum of florescent lights and the noise of someone mopping the hall outside, and under that there's the faint, inescapable drone of the city that he can hear, but Starsky, who's lived in big cities all his life, can't.

Hutch stares at the arrest sheet in his hands, tense, not seeing. So goddamn tired.

"That's it." Starsky tosses his file down. Liberman, Albert M. "Been staring at the same word for ten minutes and the letters are all startin' to look like bugs, after they've hit the windshield." Hutch watches as Starsky stretches elaborately and kicks his chair in crooked. "C'mon, these'll still be here tomorrow. I'll drive you home. You can nudge me if I start falling asleep."

Hutch looks around for his holster and spots it between the coffee pot and Starsky's mound of candy wrappers. Straps it on, grabs his coat. "And what if I fall asleep?"

"Then I'll nudge you."

Hutch stops, hand resting against the squad room door. "And if we both fall asleep?"

"Then the side of the road'll nudge us when we drive off it."

Hutch looks away and smiles reluctantly, shaking his head, and holds the door open for Starsky.


IV


"Waiting's only gonna make it worse. You coming or what?"

Hutch rubs at his forehead -- the headache's faint, he's not quite hung over -- fumbling around inside himself for the motivation to go in there and listen to Dobey yell at them for a while. Of course that would mean not having to sit here and stare at the stack of reports he hasn't finished and doesn't even want to think about. Can't stop thinking about.

Too many people he couldn't find a way to help.

Too many people who don't want to be helped.

He really should stop going to blues bars -- they only depress him. Hutch pushes everything to the edge of his desk and follows Starsky into Dobey's office, slumps into the far chair.

Dobey has his tie pulled loose and there are two broken pencils on his desk. Hurricane warnings. Hutch tunes in and out, letting Starsky pick up the slack, letting the sound of Dobey's voice roll over him.

"The public isn't happy, either, not feeling safe in their homes. I've had the mayor on the phone. I've had the chief on the phone. Newspapers, reporters, up to the national level. And that's just this morning! And they all want me to tell them something." Dobey grinds to a halt, looking back and forth between them. "You got something I can tell them?"

Starsky fields that one with a careful, "No, sir."

"So what the hell are you doing? Get out there and start breaking this one."

A couple of 'yes, sir's and they're gone.

The elevator ride down to the garage is silent, and when Starsky walks towards the Torino, Hutch doesn't even feel like arguing.

It's a glary, hazy sort of day and the air feels gritty. Dirty. He catches Starsky glancing at him, thoughtful, trying to work something through. Hutch stares out the window, checking street corners and alley mouths out of habit.

Starsky clears his throat. "So what kind of guy does something like this? Creeps into people's homes at night and shoots them."

Hutch shrugs. "Why does anyone do anything? Maybe it just seemed like a good idea at the time."

Starsky starts to say something more and then changes his mind.

They're halfway to the home of the latest victim's sister when they get a call on a fresh body, so they turn around and go back. Going in circles.

They pull up in front of some cheap, worn-out apartments, one or two notches above flophouses. Walk down lines of anonymous, interchangeable doors. Apartment 414, the call said.

The living room's small and crowded, lit up jaggedly by flashbulbs as the photographers finish. Together they circle in from the edge of the room. There's no point in rushing to the body. It's not going anywhere and judging by the smell, this one's been here a couple of days already.

Hutch feels Starsky's gaze between his shoulder blades like the press of a hand but doesn't turn around.

The body's sprawled in the corner with a team measuring the blood splatters on the wall. The distance between various bone fragments and the ruined face. The ruined face and the edge of the doorway. The gun and the edge of the doorway.

You always draw out a crime scene in relation to fixed points.

Hutch wonders idly, absurdly, what you do when you can't find a fixed point.

There's no note.

He looks up to catch Starsky's eye, but Starsky isn't there.

There are empty glass bottles on the counters, on the TV stand instead of a TV, lined up along the walls likes days marked off on a calendar, paper sacks of them in the closets. Wine, gin, whiskey. Cheap stuff, all of it. Bags and piles of garbage. The fridge and cupboards are mostly empty and everything small enough to be pawned is missing.

Starsky's back from wherever he went. "Offed himself." The words are wrapped up in faint disapproval. Starsky always manages to take suicides personally.

"Maybe he didn't want to, really," Hutch offers, mostly a reflex. "Maybe he was just drunk and ended up pulling the trigger."

"Lotta maybes. This guy got himself here," and with an open-handed gesture Starsky encompasses all the empty bottles and empty cupboards and the story inside them, "then took the easy way out."

Hutch has never been able to explain it to Starsky, why people might feel the need to end everything; why sometimes it seems like there aren't any options and you're just walking the path that's been put before you until it narrows down to this one choice. Stay. Or let go.

"This isn't our guy." Starsky looks at him briefly as he says it.

Hutch nods. His gut is telling him the same thing.

Still, you got to go through the motions.

Starsky interviews the landlady. Hutch gets a prelim from Jimmy. Victim was dead approximately seventy-two hours before being found. Powder marks. Low angle. Open and shut.

Starsky comes up behind him, standing close, almost touching. "C'mon. Let's get out of here." Starsky's voice is quiet and tense in his ear.

Hutch takes a step back as he turns around, nods. Getting out of this smell is fine by him and -- suddenly, irrationally, he wants to knock Starsky down, split his lip. Knock his teeth in.

Wants to shove Starsky against the wall and force his mouth open, pressing their bodies together until there's nothing between them, not clothes, not skin, not silence, not all this fucking distance, then push Starsky away just as fast, twice as hard, leave him baffled or hurt or angry.

Hutch wants not to have to deal with any of this.

Starsky glances back and all Hutch can read in his face is a vague sort of irritation. "You coming or what?"


V


He hears them in his dreams sometimes, far-off sirens that never get any closer.

Hutch is waiting in the narrow space beyond an interrogation room, on one side of a two-way mirror. It's cramped and dark, like a boxed-in section of hallway.

Hutch pulled a few strings to make sure he got first crack at this guy. Lately Hutch finds he's got a lot of strings he can pull. Looking down at the floor it occurs to him, as from a great distance, that this is the high point of their careers. He doesn't notice when Dobey comes in. Dobey's just there, sitting next to him, saying, "Busy morning."

It's careful, numbing work, unraveling everything.

"Starsky . . ." Dobey shifts, clasping his hands between his knees. "How is he?"

Hutch stares off into the middle distance, slumped, blank-faced, like he's ten minutes into a dressing down he deserves. "They've had to put him back on the respirator again."

Damage and infection and we just don't know echo inside him and he can't form the words so he stares into the tiny, claustrophobic room and watches the man inside pull nervously, obsessively, at the cuffs of his very gray, very expensive suit.

They're waiting for some bigwig from on high who wants to toss his name at the hat labeled 'good guys.'

"Hutch -- son, how are you?"

Hutch feels a stab of fury, encompassing, vividly focused, and hears the exact sound the slat-back chair he's sitting on would make if he threw it, splintering against the wall.

He pushes his hands, palm down, into his thighs and says, "I'm okay, Captain. Really. I'm managing."

Bigwig sweeps in with a couple of lawyers tugged along in his wake and Hutch doesn't listen to anything they have to say. Heard it all before and none of it means anything. Eventually they stop talking and he can step into the interrogation room. Pulls the chair away from the table. Lets it drag against the floor. Sits down in a lazy, aggressive sprawl.

"Milfred P. Johns." He says it slowly, like he's reading it off the blank pieces of paper in front of him, like he doesn't already know. "Freddy. That's what your friends call you, right? Freddy." Hutch glances around idly, like he's never been here before.

If he doesn't look too far behind him, Starsky could be leaning up against the wall by the door listening for his cue, arms crossed, skeptical, on the edge of dangerous. The shove to his push.

He focuses on Johns suddenly, like a slap, like banging his fist against the table. "Or aren't you the sort that has friends. Because I gotta tell you, your friends handed you over to us real fast." Junk like this comes as easy as pushing play on a tape deck.

Hardly matters though. The guy's already trying to fold himself into smaller and smaller spaces. It's written all over him, the wish to disappear, to sink through the floor. Wink out like a spark. Hutch lays out what they want from him. Names. Tell us who was on Gunther's payrolls. Explain it to us. Explain why you're just a greedy little fish we should overlook. You just cut checks, right?

Checks that, just sometimes, paid for hit men.

Hutch keeps his voice soft, persuasive. Feels the weight of his gun like a hand on his shoulder.

Johns looks away, pulling at his cuffs. "If I do this I want . . ."

It's over. As soon as they say if, they're going to roll. Hutch simply steps outside the situation. One year, five, a hundred. Doesn't matter. That's for the lawyers and politicians on the other side of the mirror.

A stenographer comes in and Johns gives his statement, signs it, is taken away and then Dobey's sitting on the edge of the table in front of him, reaching out. "Get out of here, Hutchinson. And that's an order. Go home, eat something. I get hungry just looking at you." Trying for gruff. Trying for humor.

It comes out more kind than Hutch can bear, so he leaves.

Starsky's walking beside him, as long as he doesn't look, and the impression is disorienting. Hutch steps through the front door and stops, feeling the sunlight beat down against his face and shoulders. The bowl of the sky, perfectly cloudless and endlessly blue, unbroken, hangs above him like a suspended weight.

Hutch is hardly aware of the drive home. He's just reaching up, feeling along the lintel for the key.

Standing in the middle of his apartment. He hasn't been over to Starsky's yet. Thought about it all last week. He should go water the plants, throw out the food that's spoiled.

Everything around him is too white, faded-out and grainy, and he sits down, puts his head in his hands and just breathes until the dizziness goes away. Washes out a cup. Can't find the coffee percolator. Stares into the fridge for a while, rubbing at his forehead.

He puts on his coat again and drives to the hospital.

The world blurs along outside the car window.

Sometimes Starsky will surface, almost, his focus all muddied up, but he knows Hutch is there. Sometimes.

Hutch parks, walks down long hallways. A nurse smiles at him. Tells him they've moved Mr. Starsky. Room 511. Thanks.

An elevator. Numbers lighting up, counting off floors.

Parallel lines of florescent lights reflected off too-bright linoleum. The smell of disinfectant.

Counting off rooms.

Then there's the dialysis machine, the heart monitor, lines of tubing, IVs. A hardbacked chair. Starsky's mouth and the skin around his eyes are drawn tight with pain, even asleep.

Hutch drags the chair close. Reaches out and takes Starsky's hand carefully, holding it between both of his, brushing his thumb over Starsky's knuckles.

"Hey, listen, Starsk. We got another one this morning. Got the guy that ran Gunther's stable of underage girls. Biggest in the county. Most of them are in child services now and we . . ." Hutch swallows and tips his head back, blinking fast. "There were three twelve-year-olds locked in a backroom and, you know, when I look across at that empty desk it doesn't mean a goddamn thing. None of it."

Feels as though all he has to do is look in a mirror at the wrong angle and he'll see himself back there, kneeling on hard pavement again, time slipping through his fingers, red and warm and measured out in heartbeats.

"Wake up and give me that look, Starsky. The one that goes, 'What am I going to do with you.'"

Bustle and voices and layers of footsteps overlap in the hallway outside.

Starsky's hand is cool and dry in his.

"I need you not to do this to me."

Nothing. No response.

The impulse settles over him like the slow buildup of dust, like the soft weight of accumulated snowfall. He wants to lean over and kiss Starsky's forehead, the bridge of his nose, the corner of his mouth, his palms, the inside of his elbows, making each touch into a promise -- he doesn't know of what, doesn't care.

Anything.

But all Hutch can do is sit there, listening to the whoosh of the dialysis machine, the beep of the heart monitor, and the restless, endless bustle in the hallway outside.

Waiting.

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