Starsky breathed a quiet sigh of relief when Hutch reached for
the spaghetti sauce and ladeled it over his second serving of
"Good stuff," Hutch commented. "Did you jazz it up somehow?"
Starsky's eyes probed Hutch's face for any sign of the demon's return, but his friend was only regarding him with idle curiosity.
"Uh, put a little extra oregano in it," Starsky managed to say in a fairly steady voice.
"I'll have to try that next time." Hutch finished the spaghetti quickly, and rose to take his plate to the sink. He spotted the opened beer on the counter.
"Hey, Starsk, is this your beer?"
Starsky didn't reply as Hutch took a swig of the brew. The blond held it out in offering to his partner, but Starsky shook his head, eyes wide with anticipation. Hutch just shrugged and took it with him when he wandered over to the couch.
"Anything on the tube worth watching?"
"Haven't checked," Starsky called over the sound of running water as he rinsed his own plate. A few minutes later he joined his partner, who was perusing the current issue of TV Guide.
"You'd think there'd be something decent on a Friday night," Hutch grumbled, stifling a yawn with his hand.
"Too early," Starsky commented. "Nothing on right now except the news and a couple of game shows. How about some chess?"
Hutch yawned again. "I'm not sure I could concentrate on it right now. I guess it's been a longer week than I realized."
Starsky grinned. "You've worn yourself out taking care of me."
"I didn't mind. Monopoly?" Hutch suggested. "Doesn't require very many brain cells for me to whip your butt at that."
"That's what you think, buddy. I've been studying up."
He fetched the Monopoly box from the closet and handed it to Hutch. "You count money. I'll handle deeds."
Starsky concentrated on sorting the cardboard squares into their proper sequence, surreptitiously glancing at Hutch now and then. The blond's eyes were obviously growing heavy, but Starsky worried that he hadn't eaten enough of the mysterious herbs to actually knock him out. If it was just Hutch, Starsky was sure Huggy and Carlos could handle him in a weakened state, but with the demon in charge, all bets were off. It seemed to be physically stronger than his partner.
"I'll roll first."
"No way," Hutch argued, holding the dice out of Starsky's reach. "You went first last time."
Hutch yawned once more, hugely, and Starsky took the opportunity to relieve him of the dice.
Hutch threw the dice and came up with eight. "Hah! I'm first."
"Smartass," Starsky grumbled good-naturedly.
Three turns into the game, when Hutch had collected three pieces of property and Starsky was already cooling his heels in jail, Hutch slumped sideways on the sofa.
There was no answer. He reached out his good hand and shook Hutch. "Hey, Hutch? You awake?"
Still no response, but his friend's regular breathing reassured him that the blond would be all right. With a sigh of relief, Starsky went to the front door and flicked the porch light as he'd been instructed, then opened the door to wait for his friends. He looked over his shoulder, half expecting to be grabbed from behind, but Hutch still slept soundly on the couch.
"Good job," Huggy said as they entered the apartment. "Carlos, let's work fast, m'man."
They picked up Hutch and carried him downstairs to where Huggy's car waited. The unconscious man was placed in the back seat between Starsky and Carlos, and Huggy slipped behind the wheel.
"We should have cuffed him," Huggy said as he drove away. "Just in case he wakes up too soon."
"No," Starsky said firmly. "I don't like any of this. That's going too far."
Huggy and Angeline exchanged a glance in the front seat, but Starsky was too intent on watching his partner to see it.
They reached Angeline's house fifteen minutes later, and Hutch was already showing signs of waking up.
"Did he not consume all the herb?" Angeline asked Starsky as Huggy and Carlos wrestled the blond out of the back seat.
"Most of it," he told her. "I couldn't very well force the rest down his throat. And you're right. The demon isn't gone. It put in a brief appearance before Hutch ate the stuff."
Angeline just nodded and followed the other two men into her house.
"Where to, Angie?"
"The back room," she instructed. When Starsky followed them, she turned and put a hand on his chest. "You must wait out here."
"What? No way. I'm goin' wherever Hutch is."
"I am afraid you cannot. It is too dangerous for you."
"I'll risk it."
She shook her head firmly, not backing down. "No, it is not possible."
"Look, lady, you've got my partner back there--"
"Starsky, wait." Huggy stepped out of the small room where they'd taken Hutch, and motioned his cousin inside. He waited until the door was shut before turning back to his friend. "You can't be there, Starsky."
"Huggy, what's she gonna do to Hutch?"
"I'm not sure, but from what I do understand, there's gonna be one pissed off demon floating around in there soon. It already hates your guts. If it can't have Hutch..."
"It might take me?"
"I don't care. I want to be with Hutch."
"Well I care. And believe me, Hutch would care."
Starsky grabbed Huggy's arm. "Hug--"
"Look, Starsky," the black man said gently. "You know I won't let anything happen to Hutch if I can possibly stop it. You're just going to have to trust me to take care of him for a little while. Now go sit down in the living room, and let Angeline do her job."
"I don't like it."
"Duly noted and agreed upon, but there ain't much choice."
After a long look, Starsky at last obeyed Huggy, perching uneasily in a leather chair.
"Tell her...just tell her to be careful with him, Huggy."
"Hey, I don't have to tell her that." At Starsky's quick look, he added, "But I will. You just sit tight and try to relax."
"How long is this going to take?"
"No idea." Huggy disappeared into the room again, and Starsky was left along with his thoughts.
Hutch opened his eyes, blinking at the bright light that shone in his face. He tried to sit up, and realized he was lying on some type of hard surface, his arms and legs pulled taut and securely bound.
"What the hell!" He tried to struggle, but couldn't move more than a few inches. He relaxed only marginally when Huggy's face came into view above his. "Huggy? What's going on? Let me loose!" he demanded.
"'Fraid I can't do that just yet, Blondie. Not until Angeline here is finished with you."
Hutch turned his head to the right and caught sight of Huggy's cousin, busily setting up a small table with several odd-looking implements and four large, white taper candles. He turned back to Huggy.
"Where's Starsky?" he demanded. "You've got about two seconds to explain all this to me, Huggy, before I--"
"Before you what?" Huggy sighed. "Look, Hutch, just calm down. You know I ain't about to hurt you. Even if I wanted to, my life wouldn't be worth spit after Curly got hold of me."
"Where is he?"
"In the other room. It's too dangerous for him to be in here."
"What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about, Angeline's gonna rid you of that intruder that's been making you and Starsky both miserable lately."
"It is a painless ritual," Angeline replied, coming into the light so Hutch could see her better. "But the demon will be angry. If it sees your partner, it is possible he will be in danger."
"You think it won't know he's in the next room?" Hutch asked, disbelief written on his features.
"After it is driven from your body, it will no longer have your cognizance. It will know only what it can sense in the immediate proximity."
"Then what's to stop it from jumping into you? Or Huggy?"
"We will be protected. Carlos as well."
"Carlos?" Hutch squinted at the spot where Angeline had gestured and could barely make out Huggy's friend standing against the wall. "If you can protect the three of you, why not Starsky?"
"The demon's desire for him would be too strong. Please, no more questions. We must begin."
"Hutch, I'll tell you what I told Starsky. You're just going to have to try and trust me for the next little while as much as you trust him. I won't let anything happen to either of you."
"You really think this will work?"
"It must," Angeline answered, and shut off the light that had been blinding him.
She had lit the four candles, and now the room flickered with eerie, dim light. Hutch watched as she donned a white robe from a closet in the corner. He smelled something unusual, finally indentifying it as a strange incense.
Huggy backed up to join Carlos against the wall. Angeline took a small vial of what appeared to be oil of some sort, and began anointing Hutch with it. She touched his forehead, his neck where the blood flowed through his arteries, and several other places on his body, muttering unfamiliar words under her breath. After she'd set the oil aside, her eyes closed, and she began swaying gently back and forth. She chanted, again words Hutch didn't recognize.
He felt an ache in his wrists, and realized with a start that he'd been twisting them, unconsciously trying to free himself from the ropes.
And then he felt the rage beginning to build.
Starsky couldn't sit still, so he paced a bit. He heard the sound of voices coming from the back room, but couldn't make out what they were saying. He even walked down the hall, his hand reaching for the doorknob, until he remembered Huggy's words. He knew they could trust him--Huggy would never do anything to harm him or Hutch--but letting go of the control in such a situation was terrifying. To know that his best friend was behind that door, in a fight for his very soul, and he wasn't allowed to even watch was tearing him up inside.
Resolutely, he turned back to the living room. Angeline had some magazines on her coffee table, and Starsky picked one up and began flipping through it, not even seeing the pictures and articles that passed before his eyes. His whole being was concentrated on that door, and on the blond man behind it.
A breeze stirred the curtains, and he looked up, startled. He realized it had grown chilly in the room, and he rose to shut the window. He pulled back the curtain and stared in shock at the tightly closed window.
Starsky backed away, watching as the "breeze" that drifted through the room continued to move the curtains. Pages fluttered on the abandoned magazine that had fallen to the floor. His head jerked toward the hall when he heard a loud noise from the back room, then another.
Angeline's voice drifted from the room, raised now but still using a language Starsky could not understand or even recognize.
He felt under his jacket for his weapon, grateful that he'd thought to grab it on his way out of the apartment. If things got too much weirder, he was going to storm that room, no matter what Huggy's cousin said. Hutch was his partner, not Huggy's, and it was his job to look out for him.
The next sound he heard both froze his blood and galvanized him into action.
It was Hutch's scream. Long, loud, agonized.
Starsky didn't waste another breath. He raced to the door and twisted the knob, only to find it unyielding. In a split second he considered knocking and rejected the idea. He kicked at the door, and was surprised when it did not open immediately. Houses of this vintage weren't known for their strength.
Starsky kicked again, and realized that something--or someone--was holding the door shut from the other side.
"Huggy!" he yelled. "Let me in!"
Hutch screamed again, and Starsky gave the door one more mighty kick. It opened at last. He crossed the threshold and stopped, frozen with fear at the sight before him.
The breeze in the outer room had been nothing compared to the whirlwind that swirled around Hutch and Angeline, and the temperature in here was roughly that of a meat locker. The candles had blown out, and the only light was that which made its way through the window from the streetlamp outside.
Hutch lay spread-eagled, tied to a large table. He writhed and twisted against the ropes, his face contorted in pain. Angeline stood over him, holding a small beaker with some sort of light blue liquid which she sprinkled over Hutch as she chanted.
Starsky started forward, but Huggy and Carlos pulled him back.
"Let me go, Huggy!" He struggled against the two men, almost managing to pull free. Carlos put one arm around his waist and another around his neck, pulling Starsky back against his massive body.
"Starsk, you gotta give her a chance to finish!"
They were yelling above the noise of the whirlwind, but still it felt as if their words were swallowed up by the gale.
"She's hurting him!"
Suddenly the wind ceased, and all three men watched in fascinated terror as a black cloud of...something...rose from Hutch. Like ashes floating in the air, Starsky thought wildly. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust and what IS that thing?
"Get him out of here!" Angeline screamed, pointing at Starsky.
Huggy and Carlos started to hustle Starsky out of the room, but to their surprise, the black cloud didn't seem to have its sights set on the detective at all. Instead, they watched as it left off hovering over Hutch, and quickly enveloped Angeline.
Angeline's face changed immediately, taking on a twisted, evil contortion that made her appear barely human.
"Angie!" Huggy yelled. He started toward his cousin, and it was his turn to be pulled back by Carlos, who released Starsky in order to grab the other man.
Time seemed to stop as Angeline turned to the table where her instruments waited, picked up a large knife and swung back around to Hutch.
Hutch, now free of the demon but still unable to move, could only watch as she lifted the knife above her head. It glittered brilliantly in the dimness, as if illuminated by its own spotlight, and Hutch thought very clearly through the chaos, I am about to die.
"No!" he and Huggy both cried at once, but their voices were overwhelmed by the report of Starsky's gun.
Angeline was thrown back against the table, toppling it and its contents to the floor. The knife fell from her hand, now dull and unthreatening, an inanimate piece of wood and metal. She clutched at her shoulder, blood gushing between her fingers, and stared at the men.
The cloud rose from her this time, hovering again, and Starsky, already at Hutch's side, dimly heard her calling instructions to Huggy and Carlos.
"Hutch?" he pleaded, running his hands over Hutch's torso to make sure there were no injuries to his friend. "You all right, buddy? Talk to me, Hutch!"
Hutch's eyes were focused on the black cloud. It had begun drifting toward Starsky.
"Starsk, look out!" he tried to say, but at that moment, Huggy, following Angeline's command, tossed the beaker full of the blue liquid directly into the cloud.
The noise temporarily deafened them all. Later, Hutch would describe it as a shrieking sound, like metal on metal, but to Starsky, it sounded like the cry of a thousand tortured souls.
In the space of one second, the cloud dispersed and disappeared.
They all stared at one another, silent, until Angeline struggled to her feet.
"It is over," she told them.
Huggy sprang into action. "I'll call an ambulance."
"No!" She held out a hand to stop him, and in spite of being pumped with adrenaline, he waited. "If you call an ambulance, how will we explain things?" she said, smiling slightly.
Starsky picked up the knife Angeline had been about to plunge into Hutch and used it to cut the ropes that bound his partner. Hutch sat up, rubbing at his sore wrists, ankles, and shoulders. Starsky, after making certain his friend was unharmed, turned to the woman he'd shot.
"I'm sorry," he told her, helping her out to the kitchen where there was better light.
"It is all right," she told him. "You had no choice."
"Still, I'm sorry I had to hurt you."
"I am glad you did. You allowed us to banish the demon. If I had killed your friend, I would have it on my conscience forever. Is the bullet still inside me?"
The men managed to get the robe off her, and cut away the clothing covering her shoulder so they could take a good look at her injury.
"Went clean through," Starsky told her.
"Good. Then I will be all right."
"We've got to get you to a hospital."
"That is not necessary. I have a friend I can call. He will take care of me. Huggy, the telephone, if you please."
They all waited, Starsky doing his best to staunch the flow of blood, while she made a quick call. Her few sentences were cryptic, but she appeared satisfied when she hung up.
"He is coming," she told the group of men who still hovered over her. "Please do not worry. I will be fine."
"At least come in the other room so you can lie down," Huggy urged, and she allowed them to guide her into the living room.
Starsky spread out a clean blanket on the sofa, and they eased her onto it. Hutch put a pillow under her head. So far, Starsky's makeshift bandage seemed to be controlling the bleeding.
"I don't know how to thank you," Hutch began, but she waved his words away as if they were nothing.
"It is what I do," she told him. "I am happy I could help you and your friend. And now," she chided, her eyes twinkling, "I hope you will choose your parlor games more carefully in the future."
"No more Ouija boards for me," Hutch promised soberly.
Starsky put a hand on Hutch's shoulder, and Hutch patted it, then gently removed it. Starsky raised his eyebrows, but Hutch had an odd look on his face. He vowed to get to the bottom of this later.
When Angeline's friend arrived, he took a look at her, thanked them all for their help, and then pointedly dismissed them. Left with no other option, the four men piled back into Huggy's car and headed for home.
Few words were spoken during the drive, and when they arrived at Starsky's apartment, Hutch quickly climbed into his car and drove away, leaving Starsky and Huggy watching in confusion.
"What's up with him?" Huggy asked the world at large.
"I'm not sure, but I'll find out." He patted Huggy lightly on the arm. "Thanks, Hug. I don't know what we'd have done without you."
"Think nothing of it, my curly-haired friend. You'd do the same for me, I'm sure."
Starsky thanked Carlos, as well, and watched until the tail lights on Huggy's car disappeared around the corner.
Slowly, he climbed the stairs to his apartment. He was almost surprised to find it looking exactly as he'd left it. The wind and noise of the demon had been so strong that Starsky half-expected to find his place a mess, even from across town.
He started to gather up the Monopoly money, stacking it in the proper piles with one hand, and realized all at once that he was utterly exhausted. With one more look around the room, he took himself off to bed.
Hutch drove blindly, aimlessly, until dawn began to creep over the horizon. Then, only because it was nearby and he was trembling with fatigue, he parked beside his favorite strip of beach. He stared out over the water for a few minutes, the view not really registering at all. Anyone looking at his face would have seen the torment there, but none could have guessed its depths.
He remembered very little of the ritual Angeline had performed. He did recall a tearing, ripping pain that had wrenched screams from his throat, and he didn't think he'd ever be able to forget the horrifying helplessness of watching as Angeline prepared to thrust the knife into his heart.
These images were powerful, and new, and they would stick with him, but at this moment he would take them running through his mind forever if he could only block out the others. The true torture was the fact that when the demon had been dispossessed of his body, it had left the memories behind. All the words and deeds it had kept carefully hidden from his consciousness were exposed now, and he remembered.
He recalled the hateful, cruel things he'd said to his best friend over the past days. He remembered how it had felt to push Starsky down the stairs, watching the hapless man as he tried desperately to break his own fall. He shuddered now, still able to hear the crack of the bones in Starsky's arm as they broke against the steps. That split-second moment of looking down at the broken body of his partner, wondering if he was still alive, before the demon had retreated and left Starsky and Hutch to live with the aftermath.
And he remembered the threat he'd issued so casually only hours before.
If you ever do think of trying anything like that, I'll kill you.
Words spoken frequently in jest, in mock-anger, but when he'd uttered them then, they'd been sincere. At least the demon had meant them. And Hutch had no doubt that, had Starsky and Huggy not abducted him and forced him to go through the ritual, they would have eventually come true. Possibly in the not-too-distant future.
The knowledge that it hadn't really been him, that he hadn't been in control of himself, didn't help a bit. Not when he could close his eyes and see Starsky's face, hear his cries of pain and fear as he tumbled down the stairs. It could have been all over that time. He could have broken his neck, or sustained severe brain or spinal injury, or--
Hutch drew in a sharp breath, the realization of just how lucky they'd been hitting him all at once. He crossed his arms over the steering wheel and buried his face in them, trying to block out the images, but they were like a living collage in his mind, bombarding him with the knowledge of his guilt.
And hardest of all to bear was the realization that Starsky would forgive him, whether or not he was deserving of that forgiveness.
He wasn't sure how long he sat there, trying to decide what to do now that his life had been destroyed. There was really only one thing, he supposed, since until he turned in his badge and gun, he was still a cop.
With a head that ached and a heart that was broken, Hutch started the car and drove toward the station.
Starsky had finally managed to fall asleep, after several hours of tossing and turning in his bed. The memory of what had happened the night before wouldn't leave, but it wasn't completely clear, either. He felt as if he'd witnessed the entire scene through an alcohol-induced haze--it was odd, gauzy, like a half-remembered dream.
He remembered the black cloud, and the way it had turned toward him--that was frightening enough, but Angeline about to stab his partner to death was infinitely more so. He knew he'd shot her, knew she wouldn't allow a doctor, but beyond that... The drive home had barely registered.
He did recall that Hutch had left without a word, and that had filled him with dread.
The phone rang, and he rolled over to fumble for it. Of course it would be Hutch. They had the day off. They'd get together later this morning for some lunch, maybe catch a college football game or two on TV. He might even be able to talk Hutch into something really good for lunch, like Lorenzo's Italian. They'd been there a few times, and his partner had appeared to enjoy it.
"H'lo," he muttered into the phone. "Hutch?"
Starsky sat up in bed, suddenly wide awake.
"Yeah, Cap'n, what is it?"
"I think you'd better get down here and talk some sense into this dimwitted partner of yours."
"What's he doing?"
"Come see for yourself," Dobey invited gruffly. "I've been trying to reason with him for the past hour, but I'm not getting anywhere. He never listens to anyone but you, anyway."
"I'll be right there, Cap." Starsky was already throwing off the covers and heading for the shower by the time he hung up.
When he entered the squad room, Hutch had apparently just finished typing up some sort of report. He was attempting to hand it off to their captain, who was looking at it with disgust mixed with a healthy dose of anger.
"What's going on?" Starsky asked casually, leaning against his desk.
The squad room was empty except for the three of them, so Dobey didn't hold back.
"This idiot partner of yours has some sort of fool idea about resigning!" he blustered. "And this cockamamie report--" He grabbed it from Hutch and was about to rip it in half when the blond snatched it back.
"I'm a cop, Captain, and facts are facts," Hutch said, his voice low and calm, despite the pallor on his face and the unnatural shine to his eyes. "Everything in that report is a fact."
"Can I see?" Starsky held out his hand, and Hutch gave him the report, not meeting his eyes.
"You'll have to sign that," Hutch told him, removing his gun from his holster and holding it out toward Dobey. When the captain ignored him, he sighed and placed the weapon on the desk, along with his badge.
Starsky, who had guessed what the report contained as soon as he'd seen Hutch's face, skimmed it over quickly. He'd been correct--it held all the facts, but none of the truth. Hutch had effectively documented all the crimes, both major and minor, that had been committed against Starsky by his partner's hands, but had left out the most important fact of all--that it wasn't Hutch who was responsible.
When he reached the bottom, he took the pen Hutch held out to him, but instead of signing the report, he just tucked the pen behind his ear and tore the paper into pieces.
"Starsky, what the hell--that took me two hours!" Hutch looked truly angry at the turn of events, and Starsky fought to remain calm.
"I don't know where you got all that shit, Blondie, but I don't remember any of it. And since I'm the supposed victim, and there aren't any witnesses..." He shrugged. "Guess you don't have much of a case."
"Look, you two," broke in Dobey in a voice low with fury. "I don't know what this is all about, but I am ordering the two of you to work it out. Hutchinson, this ridiculous idea of resigning--just forget about it right now. I refuse to accept a resignation from one of my best officers with no good reason--"
"Captain, you can't refuse--"
"--and if you think he'll be any use to me on his own," he jabbed an irritated finger toward Starsky, "you can think again! Now I only came in this morning to pick up the jacket I left here yesterday, so I can go watch my nephew's peewee football game without freezing my ass off. I didn't expect to find you here, minus your brain, Hutchinson!"
"No! Shut up. I don't want to hear another word. I'm leaving now. You two have the weekend off, and when I get here on Monday morning, I expect to find both of you behind these desks, ready to work! Is that clear?"
"Yes, Captain," Starsky said demurely.
As if realizing he'd get no response from Hutch, and unwilling to waste a terrific exit line, Dobey stormed out of the squad room, slamming the door hard enough to rattle the glass. Starsky winced.
"Well?" he said to Hutch once the building had stopped shaking. "You want to talk about it?"
"There's nothing to talk about," Hutch said sullenly, holstering his weapon and shoving his badge back into his pocket. "Dobey might not want to accept my resignation, but he'll find out he doesn't have any choice when I go over his head to the commissioner."
"Were you going to talk to me about any of this, or did you just come to the decision to end our partnership all by yourself?"
"Starsky, I very nearly ended it permanently! I could have killed you, almost did kill you, threatened to kill you! How can you just forget all that?"
Starsky sighed, closing his eyes and shaking his head in total exasperation.
"Come with me," he said after a minute, and turned to leave the room.
"Just come on, willya? I'm not gonna ask you twice, Hutch."
True to his word, Starsky walked to his car without looking back. He could hear Hutch following, and inwardly breathed a sigh of relief. He wasn't sure what he'd have done if Hutch hadn't obeyed.
"Did you drive here one-handed?"
Hutch rolled his eyes. "Give me the keys."
Starsky ignored him, and slid behind the wheel.
"Hutch, it's an automatic. It has power steering. It only requires one hand to drive. Believe me, I know. I drive with one had holding food all the time."
"Yeah, and scare the hell out of me every time you do it."
"So, if I scare you today, you can always grab the wheel. Will you just get in the damn car?"
"Fine," Hutch groused, settling himself in the passenger seat.
He slammed the door a little too hard, but Starsky refrained from commenting. He just pulled the car into traffic and headed toward the beach.
"It's too cold for a swim, Starsk."
"I can't swim with this cast, anyway."
Which only served to remind Hutch that he was the reason behind the cast. Starsky glanced sideways at his partner, saw the look on his face, and interpreted it correctly.
"Stop blaming yourself for something you had no control over."
"Easy for you to say."
"Easy for me to do, too."
"Starsky, you don't understand."
Hutch was silent until Starsky parked the car and said again, "Try me, Hutch. Trust me."
"I--I remember," Hutch whispered, his eyes glued to the clenched hands in his lap. "I remember everything, Starsk. All the things I did to you, everything I said..."
Starsky shrugged. "Yeah? So do I. Only the way I remember it, it wasn't you."
Hutch looked at him then, and the anguish in his eyes nearly ripped Starsky apart. "I can't forget, though," he said in a strangled voice. "I can't forget that I pushed you down those stairs, I poured that hot coffee in your lap--Starsk, I threatened to kill you!"
Starsky didn't say anything for a minute, then he opened the door and got out.
"Come on," he said over his shoulder, and once again was relieved when Hutch followed.
They walked for about five minutes, not side-by-side, as they normally would, but with Starsky in the lead. He got the distinct impression Hutch didn't feel worthy to walk next to him any longer. When they finally reached the spot Starsky was heading for, he stopped.
"Remember this place?" he asked quietly.
"How could I forget?"
Hutch looked out over the water, shimmering in the sunshine this time, and fingered the badge in his pocket. He pulled it out, and looked at it for long moments. Then he glanced over at Starsky and realized his friend had taken his own badge out and was holding it, waiting.
"Well?" Starsky asked when Hutch said nothing.
Hutch just looked out at the water again.
"You know if you throw yours away again, I'm gonna have to do the same."
"We already talked about this, Hutch. I can't be a cop if you're not there to back me up. I can't do it. I won't."
"Don't," Hutch pleaded softly. "Don't put this on me, Starsky. Don't put this one on my shoulders."
"I have to. Because all that other stuff, all that weight you're carrying around like a cannonball chained to your neck, Hutch, that's nothing. That wasn't you. I still trust you with my life. Would I say that, if I believed you were in control of one single thing that--that thing did to us?"
Hutch shook his head slowly. "I suppose not."
"Darn right I wouldn't. But this one, Hutch, this one's all yours. Nobody can make this decision but you, but I think you'd better consider how it's gonna affect everybody else around you before you make it." He stroked the tip of his finger lightly along the shield. "I worked my whole life to earn this," he said quietly. "I wanted it like I've never wanted anything else in the world. The only times I considered giving it up were the times I wasn't thinking straight. Times I let myself be ruled by grief, or fear, or something other than plain old good sense. But I always managed to get my head together with your help. Now it's up to you whether or not I keep it. Because you mean more to me than this badge, buddy. Our friendship means more than anything else. And if you're leaving the force..." He shrugged, and gave a small sigh. "I'm just gonna follow you, y'know."
The silence lengthened until Starsky was afraid he'd lost his gamble, feared he'd actually lost Hutch this time. Then, at last, the blond spoke.
"How do I live with this?" he asked in a voice that was barely audible against the breaking waves.
"You don't," Starsky replied at once. "You let it go."
Hutch didn't answer, and Starsky reached out to take his friend's hand. "This," he said, holding up their two clasped hands, "is the only thing that matters. That we've been friends through so much, for so long, and we're still partners. That you know what I feel and I know what you feel, and yeah, sometimes we irritate the hell out of each other, but we're still here, Hutch. That's what matters. And throwing that badge away, that's not gonna change anything, buddy. Because I'll still be here, whether you want me or not."
Hutch looked at their hands, at his shield, at the water, but said nothing at all.
"Look, if you want me to say I forgive you, I'll say it. Not that it's necessary, but if it'll help you feel better...I forgive you. Okay? Now can we please go get some lunch? I'm starving."
He watched his partner's face keenly, waiting for any break in the armor, and was at last rewarded by a slight crinkling around the eyes. It was soon followed by the ghost of a smile and what might have been a chuckle.
"You're right, Starsk. Some things never change."
"Aww, come on, Starsk--it's not even noon yet. How about some bagels?"
"Lunch, Hutch, not duck food."
"I can't eat Italian this early, it'll sit in my stomach like a rock all day."
"That's Italian, too, dummy!"
"Actually, technically, it's not. Did you know--"
"Shut up, or I'll throw you in the ocean."
"I'd like to see you try it!"
And Starsky caught the playful glint in Hutch's eyes just in time to give him a slight head start as they ran down the beach together.
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