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Little Rock

Written by Valerie Wells

Hutch woke, breathing hard, from another nightmare, so vivid in its ability to frighten him that he was soaked with sweat and trembling. The problem was, the dream itself hovered always just out of the reach of memory. He didn't know what frightened him. And he didn't know how to stop it.

The one person he might call at this late hour to joke him out of his night frights was too angry, still, to take his calls. And it was his own fault.

Oh, they'd seemed to make it up. After Kira had turned down the offer of both of them together, made only to confuse her, they'd left Huggy's with arms around each other, seemingly best buddies as always. But it was a sham. Starsky had been deeply hurt at Hutch's betrayal of his trust. And it wasn't something Hutch could fix with a couple of late-night, drunken evenings spent trying to explain.

Starsky's voice said "I forgive," but Starsky's eyes said, "You hurt me." And they continued to say it, every time he looked at Hutch, even now, two weeks later. It was driving Hutch slowly mad, and he had no one and nothing to vent that anger on but himself. Because it was his own fault. His own doing. His own stupidity, to let an inviting, conniving woman come between him and the best friend he was ever going to have in this life.

Hutch sighed and threw the covers back. He wasn't sleeping. He wasn't eating. But he was drinking, far too much. It was the only thing he'd found to numb the pain and let him sleep. Get into a drunken stupor far enough, and even the nightmares faded.

He'd lied to himself earlier. He knew what frightened him. He didn't know what face the monster in the dream wore, but he knew what the monster in his mind was. The fear that this time, Starsky would not be able to forgive him. The fear that he had irrevocably broken the trust his partner had put in him and that it would never be repaired.

They hadn't spent the weekend goofing off together since Kira. They hadn't been to Huggy's since the night they'd sprung their trap on Kira. Not together, anyway. Every day, they worked together, mechanically, and Hutch knew that no matter how Starsky was hurting, he was still at his back every moment, protecting him, as he protected Starsky. But their easy camaraderie was gone. Starsky didn't bring silly trivia books to read to him. Didn't try to talk him into eating spicy, indigestible foods at lunch. Didn't tease him about being blond. Their conversation was the professional exchange of two men who worked together, but that was all.

And that hurt. Hutch, too ashamed to try to climb the wall. Starsky, in too much pain.

Hutch uncapped the whiskey and tipped the bottle back.

~*~*~*~

"Mornin'," Starsky said, as Hutch got into the Torino.

"Mornin'," Hutch said, wincing a little as the bright morning sunlight hit him full in the eyes and made his headache renew its relentless pounding at his temples.

"You're lookin' a little green around the gills," Starsky remarked, throwing the car into gear. "Feel okay?"

"Fine. Just a headache."

"Take some aspirin for it?"

Hutch nodded, carefully. "Yeah. Ought to kick in pretty soon."

Starsky glanced at him, a little worriedly, but gave a shrug and turned toward their district. He reached for the radio, since Hutch made no move toward it, and logged them into service. They drove in silence for block after block, just like yesterday...and the day before.

~*~*~*~

Hutch pulled the cellophane top off the package of cigarettes and contemplated them for several moments before pulling one out, sticking it in his mouth, and lighting it. He drew the smoke into his lungs. He'd quit smoking years ago, soon after entering the police academy.

Right after I met Starsky.

Starsky had pointed out, gently but firmly, that smoking would make it harder for him to run and jump and do all the physical things a cop had to do. Never mind how tough the training would be if he was coughing or gasping for breath. Even then, the opinions of his friend had meant something to him. He'd quit. It hadn't been easy. But he'd done it.

It was all too easy to start again. After a little lightheadedness, the smoke felt easy and natural in his lungs. Tasted good, like a cigarette should....

Hutch uncapped tonight's bottle of Jim Beam.

~*~*~*~

"Dammit, Hug, I don't know what the hell I'm gonna do with him," Starsky said mournfully, looking up from his untouched beer.

"Have you tried just talkin' to him, Starsk? Just sayin', hey, bro, what the fuck's wrong with you?"

Starsky smiled grimly. It didn't reach his eyes. "He won't talk to me. I try. At least, I think I'm tryin'. We had a couple of long nights. I told him I forgave him. He don't believe me."

Huggy sighed. "Question is, amigo, did you really forgive him or just tell him you did?"

Starsky's eyebrows climbed toward his hairline. "Huh?"

"Starsky," and Huggy leaned over the bar toward his friend, "you can't fool Blondie. Not for a second. You can't fool me, either. Sure, you told him you forgave him. Maybe you even meant it. But look at you, m'man. You're bummin'. Big time. And I can see it written all over your face. You think he can't?"

Starsky was silent for several moments, swirling his beer around in the glass, still not drinking it. At last, he said, "You're right, Hug. He tried to steal my girl. The day after I told him I was in love with her. That ain't easy to forgive."

"No, it ain't," Huggy agreed readily. "Have you seen her since the day you all was in here?"

Starsky shook his head. "Huh uh. Don't want to, either. That was the end, for me. She betrayed me, too...." he trailed off.

"I see. That's the bottom line, then, ain't it? You feel like Hutch betrayed you? And you can't forget that, can ya?"

Starsky mutely shook his head again.

"I ain't seen him in here since that night," Huggy said. "He ain't been to Nellie's place, either. Wonder where he spends his free time?"

"At home. Alone. Drinkin'."

It was Huggy's turn to raise his eyebrows. "Drinkin' alone? That ain't a good sign."

"Really," Starsky said sourly, raising his own glass to his lips at last. "Comin' to work every morning hung over as hell. His eyes are red all the time. Half the time he don't look like he's had a shower or anything to eat. He's lost weight...."

"He's eatin' himself up over this, Starsk," Huggy said. "Can't you see that? You wanted him to feel bad. Well, he does."

"I don't want him to destroy himself!" Starsk flared.

"Didn't say you did. But that's what's happenin'. Question is, what are you gonna do about it?"

~*~*~*~

As soon as Hutch entered the Torino the next morning, Starsky could smell the cigarette smoke on him. He turned in his seat to stare at his partner. "Have a date last night?"

"Nope."

"Been hanging out in a bar?"

Hutch shook his head. His hair, normally so neat and smelling of an herbal shampoo he bought at the health-food store, flopped lankly over one eye. Hutch didn't bother to push it away.

"Well, you smell like cigarettes, man," Starsky said, more sharply than he intended to. "And you look like hell. What's wrong, Hutch? What the hell is wrong?"

But Hutch shook his head again instead of answering, too dispirited and hung over to realize that this was the first time in two weeks that Starsky had openly shown this much interest in him. He heard the anger in Starsky's voice, but not the concern that prompted it.

Starsky sat and stared at him for several seconds before throwing the car into gear and gunning it a little harder than necessary. It was another near-silent day.

~*~*~*~

The phone rang, over and over again, and finally pulled Starsky out of the deepest slumber of the night. He fumbled blindly for the receiver, knocking it off into the floor and swearing, until he found it again and mumbled "Hello" into it.

Silence.

"Hello," he said again, a little more insistently. He heard breathing. Harsh breathing. Someone was there. Someone who sounded a little like...Hutch. "Hutch? Is that you?"

Still nothing. But he knew every nuance of his partner's voice and that was definitely his voice behind that strange, labored breathing.

"Hutch? You okay? What's wrong? Talk to me!"

Another long silence...and a sound that Starsky could have sworn was a sob. Finally, Hutch's voice, bleary, the words slurred, "Starsk...I'm sorry, Starsk. I fucked up...Goddamn, I fucked up...."

"Hutch?" Wide awake now, Starsky sat up in bed. "Whattya mean, you fucked up? How did you fuck up? Are you hurt? Hutch!"

A sniffle...? At least, that's what it sounded like. And a hiccup. But no more words.

Starsky tossed the phone aside and ran.

It only took 10 minutes, with lights and siren, to make it across town to his partner's place, but to Starsky those 10 minutes felt like weeks. He burst out of the car and took the steps three at a time to Hutch's door, driving his key almost viciously into the lock and bursting through into an apartment that looked like Hutch hadn't bothered to clean for weeks. With that part of his mind that went into professional "study the crime scene" mode without conscious thought, Starsky noticed the dirty clothes and dishes piled up, the newspapers strung around, the holster carelessly thrown to one side – gun still in it – and the plants dead or dying from neglect. But the part of his mind focused on one blond man's well-being and nothing else aimed him straight for the bed in the alcove and there he found Hutch.

Starsky skidded to a partial stop and flung himself to his knees at his partner's side. Hutch was half-in, half-out of the bed, hair tangled and falling into his eyes, wearing nothing but a ragged pair of sweatpant shorts, an empty Jim Beam bottle in his hand and another lying in the corner on its side. Hutch hadn't shaved, apparently, since they'd left work Friday. Or bathed. Starsky felt for a pulse. He laid his hand against Hutch's cheek to check for fever and found none. He opened one of his partner's blue eyes and peeked in. The eye was bloodshot and glazed, but reacted satisfactorily to the bedside lamp.

"Hutch?" Starsky whispered, bewildered. "Hutch, what's wrong?" He automatically hung up the telephone that was still off the hook, grunted a little as he scooted Hutch back into the bed, and made an attempt to smooth the tumbled covers.

Hutch moaned and muttered something and finally pried one eye open to gaze at Starsky. He couldn't, quite, focus. But he raised one hand and laid it on Starsky's curly hair as his eyes filled with tears. "Aw, buddy. God, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I wish I could...." his voice trailed off and broke. He swallowed and tried again. "Wish I could make it up to you...."

"Hutch, tell me what you've done," Starsky said urgently, his only thought at this moment to find out what was wrong with Hutch. "You didn't take nothin', did ya?"

"Jim Beam," Hutch said with a bleary half-grin. "Had lots of that...."

Starsky looked down at the bottle and back up at Hutch. "You mean you're drunk? That's all? Tell me! Quick, are you drunk?" In all the years they'd known each other, and all the nights they'd both overindulged in alcohol, Starsky had never, ever seen Hutch in this condition.

Hutch tried to nod, but clutched at the covers as though the movement made him dizzy. "That's it, buddy. Drunk. Kills the pain...."

The sudden shock of understanding made Starsky's knees give way with him and he sat back on his heels with a thump, staring at his partner. Kira. My God, he's agonizing over Kira. No, he stopped his own thought. Not Kira. Me.

There was no time to worry about analyzing that flash of intuition. Hutch was dangerously drunk, enough to scare Starsky. He might have alcohol poisoning. This wasn't going to be pretty, but it was going to be necessary. Starsky shrugged out of his jacket, tossed it aside and threw the covers back. He scooped Hutch up and threw his arm around his shoulders, half-carrying, half dragging him into the bathroom. Hutch didn't seem to be aware of where they were going or why, but he tried to help as much as he could.

Starsky got him deposited in front of the toilet and scrabbled through the medicine cabinet. There it was, way at the back. Starsky poured some hydrogen peroxide into the glass on the sink, filled it the rest of the way up with water, and put his arm around Hutch's back. "Drink up, buddy," he said gently. "This'll make you feel better."

Hutch obediently drank, never asking what it was. And in a very short time, Starsky was holding his head as he vomited, over and over and over again. Without letting go of Hutch, Starsky reached for a wet cloth to wipe his friend's face in between bouts, murmuring soothingly, stroking the limp hair away from his forehead for him, rubbing his back and shoulders. It finally stopped, and Hutch, weak and dizzy, slumped against the bathroom wall, utterly unable to move. Starsky carefully stepped over him and ran a hot bath, then gently took off the ragged shorts, got his arms under Hutch's, and struggled to stand him up and get him into the tub.

"What are you...what are you doing?" Hutch asked, still not sober, but sober enough to be aware of his surroundings again.

"Cleanin' ya up," Starsky said shortly, because he was breathless. He rolled up his sleeves and found a clean washcloth and went to work. Hutch lay his head back and closed his eyes and let him. The shampoo was the hardest part, because Hutch didn't have the strength to help much and Starsky didn't want to get soap in his eyes, but he did the best he could under the circumstances.

"Feels nice," Hutch murmured at one point, eyes still closed. Starsky gave a grim smile at that and gentled his touch even more, wanting to comfort and soothe as much as anything. He wrung the cloth out – again – and ran it gently over Hutch's chest, under his chin and behind his neck, then tossed it aside.

"Can you help me, now?" Starsky asked.

Hutch nodded and pried his eyes open. He got his own feet under him, with Starsky's help, and carefully stood, climbing out of the tub and onto the mat. Starsky toweled off the worst of the water and tossed Hutch's robe around him. His own clothes were soaked. He put his arm around Hutch and led him back to his bed, tucked him in, robe and all, before he stripped off his own wet shirt. The jeans would just have to be wet.

"I'm going to make some coffee," he told Hutch and headed for the kitchen. He made it strong, too, and brought it back in a few minutes. "Careful, it's hot," he said, setting the cup on the bedside table.

Hutch reached for it, his hand shaking a little, his skin too pale and damp from illness and sweat as much as water. But his eyes had cleared considerably. Starsky went back for a second cup for himself and sat down next to Hutch on the bed.

"Better?"

Hutch nodded slowly, eyes on his cup. He didn't answer aloud.

"Wanna talk about it now?"

After a few seconds of silence, Hutch softly said, "I don't know what to say."

"Then why don't you just let me ask questions and you answer them?" Starsky asked. "Like, what made you do this? You scared hell out of me, partner."

Wetness trembled on the pale lashes, but didn't fall. And Hutch still would not meet his eyes. "I guess I...didn't stop when I should've."

"That ain't the issue, buddy. What made you start?"

Hutch bit his lower lip and shook his head and didn't answer. Starsky sighed and put his arm around Hutch, leaning back against the headboard and pulling the blond head against his shoulder. He gently stroked Hutch's damp hair. After several moments, Hutch said quietly, "Don't."

"Don't what?"

"Don't be kind," Hutch said, his voice shaking a little. "Yell at me for being a fuck-up. For sleeping with your girl. For screwing you over and betraying your trust. For risking your neck these last couple weeks by coming to work hungover and burned out. But for God's sake, Starsk," he paused and swallowed and shook his head, "don't be nice to me."

Starsky did not reply. He continued to stroke Hutch's hair for a moment, then let his hand slide down to Hutch's shoulder. He took a sip of his coffee and took note that, although Hutch said he didn't want him to be "nice" to him, he had not pulled away from his position leaning against Starsky.

After another long silence, Hutch said, "How did you know?"

"Know what?" Starsky asked.

"I needed you."

Starsky allowed himself a bit of a smile, knowing Hutch wasn't looking at him. Still wasn't looking at him. "You called me. Remember?"

Now Hutch did sit up a little, pulling away and looking into his eyes for the first time. "I called you? When?"

Starsky looked at his watch and gave a little shrug. "About an hour ago. Maybe a little more."

Hutch looked so bewildered that Starsky couldn't help grinning. "I don't remember," Hutch said slowly. "What did I say?"

"You said you'd fucked up," Starsky answered simply. "And you sounded so – I don't know – I could tell something was wrong and you quit talkin', and so," he shrugged. "Here I am."

Hutch blinked at him for a moment, then took a look at Starsky's watch. "It's after 3," he said slowly.

Starsky grunted an affirmative.

"You got out of bed in the middle of the night and came over here," Hutch had to force the words out, his voice was now shaking so badly, "and held my head and gave me a bath –"

"Yup," Starsky said.

"After what I did?"

"Mmm-hmm."

"For God's sake, why?"

"You're my partner," Starsky said, as if that explained it all.

The words stunned Hutch into momentary silence. Starsky sipped from his coffee and wisely said no more, while Hutch's hands trembled so much he spilled a little of his coffee onto the bedspread. With a supreme effort, he stilled his hands, put the cup back on the nightstand and wearily rubbed his eyes. Finally, he said, "But you're my partner, buddy, and it goes both ways."

Starsky discreetly remained silent.

"I haven't been much of a partner lately," Hutch went on.

Starsky didn't reply, but he did replace the arm Hutch had dislodged from around his shoulders a few moments before.

"I'm sorry, Starsk."

"I forgive you," Starsky said. And this time he not only said it with his lips, but with his heart.

Hutch felt the difference – heard the difference. He knew the fact that Starsky's generous spirit allowed him to forgive this betrayal of his trust should make him even more ashamed, just like the fact that Starsky, in spite of that betrayal, had not hesitated to come to him in the middle of the night and do for him what his own mother hadn't done since he was a very little boy.

But he didn't feel shame. What he felt was relief. Starsky still loved him–

He'd never stopped.

He'd never lost Starsky's love. Not for one second. Or his trust. He had hurt Starsky, and Starsky had coped with that pain the only way he could. When other people hurt him, he turned to Hutch. But when Hutch hurt him....

Hutch turned his head and looked into Starsky's face. Starsky returned the look steadily. "I missed you," Hutch said. In one way, it made no sense to say that. They'd been together almost every day. But, as usual, Starsky understood the meaning behind the words.

Starsky tightened his arm a little. "Me, too." Then, because Starsky hated soapy scenes, he launched himself from the bed and said, "I'll bet your head's hurtin', buddy. Lemme get ya a couple of aspirin and then you better get some shut-eye. We gotta work tomorrow."

Hutch grinned. "Okay, Starsk."

Starsky found the aspirin, shook three of them into Hutch's waiting hand, and handed him a glass of water.

"This one isn't spiked with peroxide, is it?" Hutch asked jokingly.

Starsky shook his head. "Nope. That one's straight."

Hutch took the aspirin, drained the glass, and sank back against his pillows with a sigh. Starsky snagged the extra pillow from the other side of the bed and reached out to turn off the lamp. Trailing an extra blanket he'd found in the closet, he padded off to the couch, slid out of his jeans, and plopped down with a thump. "Night, Hutch," he mumbled, half asleep already.

Hutch smiled fondly, shook his head, and rolled over to go to sleep. But he couldn't sleep. The aspirin hadn't hit bottom in time, and the headache was pounding at his temples, along with the lingering effects of the peroxide, making his stomach roil. He was beginning to be afraid he was going to have to make a run for the bathroom again, when he saw the shadow that was Starsky come back to his bedside.

"Can't sleep?"

"Go on, Starsk, I've ruined your night enough already–"

"Shut up, Hutch," Starsky said gently. "Roll over onto your stomach."

"Huh?"

"Roll over, I said. And get rid of your robe."

Puzzled, Hutch rolled over and shrugged off his robe. Starsky sat next to him, pulled the blankets away, and started rubbing his back. It wasn't a massage; Starsky applied no real pressure. Instead, he just used both hands to stroke up and down in a regular, soothing rhythm that lulled Hutch into a deep relaxation. For several minutes, there was no sound but hands sliding over skin. Finally, Hutch mumbled, "That's nice. Where'd you learn that?"

"Sssshhh." Starsky lengthened the strokes until he was starting at the nape of Hutch's neck and stroking all the way to his waist, where the blankets lay, in one smooth movement. Silently, he kept this up until Hutch's bones had turned to rubber and every muscle was lax. Hutch couldn't have summoned the will to turn over if his life had depended on it. His eyes drifted shut without his having any consciousness of the fact. Starsky continued stroking his back with one hand; with the other, he smoothed Hutch's hair out of his eyes, then pulled the damp robe away and tossed it onto the floor. When Hutch's breathing became deep and regular, Starsky very, very carefully stood, so as not to rock the bed, and pulled the covers up over his partner's back.

He looked down at the shadowy figure in the dark for several moments before, shaking his head at his own sentimentality and glad Hutch was asleep and would never know, he leaned over and dropped a gentle kiss on the still-damp hair of his partner.

"'Night, Hutch," he whispered, and tiptoed away.

~*~*~*~

A loud groan woke him at a painfully early hour, making him jump and sit bolt upright on the couch. For just a moment, he didn't know where he was, until he caught sight of a very rumpled and hollow-eyed Hutch, sitting slumped in the center of his bed holding his head in his hands.

"Mornin'," he said casually, making Hutch jerk toward him and eliciting another groan. "Starsky?" Hutch blinked blearily at him, rubbed his eyes, and looked again. "What the hell are you doing here?"

"You don't remember nothin' about last night?" Starsky inquired, reaching to the floor for his jeans and groaning a little himself at the movement. Dragging Hutch from bed to bathroom and back again had pulled a few muscles he'd forgotten he had.

Hutch looked bewildered and gazed around himself as though he expected to find the answer on the walls. Starsky's leather jacket was wadded up and tossed against one wall and his shirt lay beside it, rumpled and wrinkled from having been wet and left in a heap. Hutch's robe also lay in a heap on the floor. His forgotten cup of coffee still stood on the nightstand. The empty Jim Beam bottles on the floor, which Starsky had simply shoved out of the way with his foot, leaned against each other on the other side of the nightstand. Then, when Starsky stood up in order to put his jeans on, Hutch realized he himself was attired in nothing but skin. "L-last night?" he asked. He searched his memory. There was a vague impression of lying in bed with Starsky's arm around him, then on his stomach while Starsky stroked his back. His eyes drifted back to the heap of clothes. And his face went scarlet. "Starsk, did we...did you...oh, my God."

Starsky carefully kept a straight face, but he had to duck his head to hide his dancing eyes. He knew, too well, what Hutch was thinking. They hadn't been partners these eight years for nothing. Pretending to have trouble with his zipper, he swallowed the laugh that bubbled up and said, in a serious tone, "Did we what, Hutch?"

"Starsk, I don't remember anything after the news last night," Hutch said, near-panic in his voice. "At least, not much. Just impressions. Tell me what happened."

Starsky said, "Well, let's see...I gave you a bath, then–"

"A bath?" Hutch's voice went up on the last word into what amounted to a squeak.

Starsky had to bite his lower lip, hard, to keep from laughing this time. It was a moment before he dared trust his voice. "Then I took you to bed," he said, having to stop at the sound Hutch emitted when he said that.

Hutch ran his hands through his hair and rubbed at his temples. "How much did we drink last night? I don't remember you being here when I went to bed. I staggered in here and passed out...." His voice trailed off and he looked so ashamed of himself that Starsky felt a pang of conscience for teasing him. "Oh, God, Starsky," and Hutch raised his eyes with a stricken look, "what have I been doing the last couple of weeks? I'm sorry, buddy, I'm so sorry...."

"Hutch," Starsky went in and sat beside him, and when Hutch cringed away from him, eyes down and head bowed, Starsky deliberately pulled him back with a hand on the back of his neck. "I'm sorry I teased you. You called me last night – I know you don't remember that – and I got scared for ya and came over here and sobered you up. A little, anyway. And I did give ya a bath, but that's cause you'd been sick. And I put you to bed and left you there, alone, while I slept on the couch. We didn't do nothin', um...ungentlemanly," Starsky finished, laughing a little in spite of himself.

"We didn't?"

Starsky shook his head. "Nope. You big blond blintz," he added affectionately, ruffling Hutch's already-rumpled hair. "I forgive you for Kira, okay? I did it last night, but you don't remember 'cause you was too drunk. I'd rather have you than her anyway. I already got you broken in."

Hutch lifted his head and gazed at him, a little uncertainly, for a moment. As the headache receded a little, his mind cleared a little, and he remembered bits and pieces of the night before. He remembered Starsky slowly stroking his back to relax him so he could sleep. And he remembered thinking how lucky he was that, no matter what he'd done, he hadn't lost Starsky's love. "You're not mad at me anymore?"

"I never was mad, Hutch," Starsky said. "I was hurt. But you got mad at yourself, buddy, and I sure wish you'd stop it, 'cause I miss my old partner and I'd like to have him back."

Their eyes met and though Hutch didn't say the words, Starsky knew he had his old partner back from that moment.

Then Hutch cleared his throat and said, "You're sure we didn't...I mean, your clothes are all over my bedroom and I'm...not wearing any."

Starsky laughed aloud. "You sound kinda disappointed, pal. You carryin' a secret torch for me or something?"

Hutch grinned in return. "No. I mean, you know I love you, but...no."

"Good boy." Starsky ruffled his hair again and stood up. "I'm gonna hit the shower. Got a shirt I could borrow? And you better get movin', too, or we'll be late."

"Okay." Hutch watched Starsky's retreating back, but just before the bathroom door closed between them, he called, "Hey, Starsk?"

"Yeah?"

"Thanks."

Starsky poked his head around the corner and winked at him. "Think nothin' of it, schweetheart."

The End

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