A Time to Hurt, A Time to Heal
by Lucy


SHSVS - Episode 502

**********

Ken Hutchinson entered the squadroom whistling a soft tune between his teeth and headed to the coffeepot. As he poured a cup for himself he turned to his desk with a raised eyebrow and let his tune rise to a sharp tweet to get his partner's attention. The dark head raised sharply, eyes instantly alert for a quick scan of the room, then relaxed into a slow smile as they fell on Hutch standing, pot extended in a question.

The dark head looked back down to the papers he was reading without any comment beyond taking the Coke in his hand and raising it in explanation of his lack of need for coffee.

"I thought you were going to be in late this morning. Weren't you going to the doctor?"

"Yeah, but the appointment got cancelled. We spent most of Saturday at the hospital trying to stop premature labor, so she's home with her feet up and her mom's there to watch Alicia," Arturo Flores answered as he signed a report and passed it to Hutch for his signature as well.

"Everything's okay, isn't it?" Hutch asked ignoring the page, the concern in his voice evident.

"Yeah," Arturo smiled and looked up. "Everything's fine, truly. If it weren't I wouldn't be here at all. She got a little dehydrated. She's having a lot more trouble with nausea this pregnancy, maybe that means it's a boy this time, huh?" Arturo's smile broadened. "Everything's fine, thanks for asking."

"You should go down to the Property Room and check out a beeper. Then if we're away from the radio and she needs anything, you'll know right away," Hutch offered, his concern unappeased.

Arturo leaned back in his chair and patted the beeper clipped to his belt, hidden like his gun by the loose jacket. "Great minds," he answered with a soft chuckle. "Did you and your wife have any kids?"

"No, no we didn't. Considering how the marriage ended, it's probably best."

"I've seen how you are around Alicia. I bet you didn't think so at the time," Arturo pressed.

"No, not at the time," Hutch answered easily. "But hindsight being 20/20...."

"Ever see her?" Arturo asked.

Hutch looked up from the page he had scanned briefly before signing. "Ah...no, no I...ah...she was...killed a few years ago."

"Oh, man, Hutch...I'm so sorry. I had no idea. You said you were divorced...I...." Arturo fumbled.

"It's okay. You had no way of knowing. We'd been divorced a number of years...it's okay, all water under the bridge now." Hutch stood and carried the paper to Dobey's in box and returned to sit in the chair. He reached over and gave his partner's shoulder a squeeze, wanting to dispel the look of embarrassment the younger man still wore. "It's okay, honest. Come on, let's see what's new on those ritzy break-ins."

Arturo handed over two of the folders he dug out from under the newspaper section on the corner of the desk. "Here, I added the stuff from records already, and the primary fingerprint sheets didn't yield anything useable. Smudges and others that weren't on file anywhere."

"Yeah, I'm not surprised." Hutch gave the folders' contents a quick read, then put them down with a sigh. "That one maid acted offended that the police were dusting for prints at all," Hutch recalled with a snort. "How dare we think there would be any fingerprints on glass that she cleaned daily?"

"Right, if looks could kill, you'd be breaking in another new partner this morning," Arturo joked and looked up when an icy silence cooled the air. "Hey, Hutch...I was only kidding." With a shake of his head he drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Shall we start over?" he asked. "Hi, partner, how was your weekend? Is Starsky doing better? Want to drop by and take him with us to lunch if we have time?" Arturo asked sheepishly, a blush tinting his smooth olive skin.

"Sure," Hutch answered, willing himself to release the tension caused by the earlier remark. "If you think you can keep your foot out of your mouth long enough to eat."

"I'll work on it. Let's go talk to some more of the people on this list."

Hutch drove while Arturo shuffled papers and jotted down names and addresses. "If we hit the Century Street Cleaners first, we can talk to the owner there. According to the clerk I spoke with on Friday, he's in first thing Monday morning to do the books. Three out of the five used him for at least some of their dry cleaning services, either clothes or furniture upholstery cleaning in the past six months."

"Five?" Hutch questioned. "Has there been another hit over the weekend?"

"No, but the two sisters? Only one of them used Century, the other used someplace else." Arturo shrugged and mumbled. "Quein sabe...."

"Yo no se," Hutch answered, falling into the friendly banter they had acquired since the day Arturo had taken off on a tangent in Spanish, not knowing Hutch was bilingual. The younger man had been thoroughly embarrassed by Hutch's answer to every one of the gripes Arturo had voiced.

This current case had been an exercise in frustration. Hours of legwork were boring at best. Add to that the tension and awkwardness of a new partnership, however temporary, and the fragmentation Hutch was experiencing in attempting to keep his mind on his work and off his partner, now in every sense of the word, healing at home. Home, the word sparked more feelings now than Hutch could ever remember at any time in his life. It didn't matter whose apartment they were in, wherever Starsky was...was home. He felt his lips curve into a smile and saw Arturo glance at him out of the corner of his eye. Then as always, the younger man went about his business, no questions, and no assumptions. Arturo was a good partner; he had no complaints there.

The man was well-educated and had solid experience under his belt, even though he'd been a cop in Phoenix several years less than Hutch had been a cop. He was the antithesis of every stereotype associated with Hispanics. Yes, he was fluent in Spanish, and equally so in Japanese, while speaking English without any trace of an accent. He and Hutch shared a double degree, both carrying one in Criminal Justice, and while Hutch's minor was reflected in Pre-Med, Arturo's was in Psychology. He drove a sensible, mid-priced family car and was happily married to a girl he'd met in college. They had a beautiful daughter just turning four and another baby on the way. Arturo had transferred to the BCPD from Phoenix and was fitting in nicely. By any cultural standard, he was successful. Hutch felt himself smile again, thinking Flores had his vertical alignment in order, as his father used to put it. He was rock solid, yet as the detectives went about the tedious task of interviewing the burglary victims in this case, and all the various associations the affluent persons had in common, it was painfully clear Hutch was a WASP and his partner was not. He had tried to make it seem like an advantage for them to press rather than an ethnic slur. He repeatedly pointed out to Arturo that while the victims themselves looked directly at Hutch as they spoke even if it had been Detective Flores that had asked the question; it was the same when the maids and gardening staff had been questioned. Hutch, then, the one being all but ignored.

Hutch slid the car into a parking spot in front of Century Cleaners, and both men entered to interview the owner.

After flashing badges as identification, the two officers were shown to the back office where the owner, Mr. Harold Carson, if the name on the door was accurate, was seated at a cluttered desk. The clickity-click of the adding machine as the ribbon was printing each entry was in steady rhythm under the older man's fast-moving fingers. It took a second knock to make their arrival noticed.

"Yes? Wasn't there someone at the counter?" The older man frowned as he stood.

"Yes, there was a clerk there, but we aren't here as customers, sir." Reaching for his badge again, "My name is Detective Flores and this is Detective Hutchinson. We spoke with your on-site manager last Friday and made an appointment for this morning."

"We'd like to ask you a few questions in the hope that you might be able to help us in the investigation of some burglaries in one of the nearby gated communities you provide service to," Hutch offered after also holding his badge out for scrutiny.

"I service gated communities all over this area, what one are you referring to specifically?"

"Highland Heights," Arturo answered.

"Oh, yes. Are you investigating the murder of Stan Zychowicz's wife? They have been customers of mine for over fifteen years. Terrible thing...terrible." Harold shook his head sadly and sat heavily down in the chair.

"Do you have a log of all the deliveries and pick-ups for that area, sir?" Flores asked.

"Yes, I do. I'll get it for you." Mr. Carson rummaged through several ledger books standing upright against the back of the desk before finding the correct one. "Here, this is Highland Heights, and every delivery and pick-up in the past three months is logged in there."

"How many drivers do you have, Mr. Carson?" Hutch asked.

"I have three full-time and two part-time. The part-timers are students; they work evenings and weekends mostly. The full-time guys are Monday through Friday peak hours; six a.m. is the first run. They usually turn it over to the kids after three or so."

"Do you mind if we take this with us and return it tomorrow?" Hutch asked.

"No, just give me a second to make a copy of today's runs." Harold took the ledger back and walked to the copy machine against the wall. "You're sure I'll get it back tomorrow? Tuesday is a big pick-up day. I don't want to run two logs any longer than I have to; it's too easy to miss something that way. I've never lost a garment," he said proudly. "I've been in business here for twenty-three years. Never lost anything that belonged to a customer. I don't want to start now, know what I mean?"

"Yes, sir. We'll see that it's returned to you as soon as possible," Flores assured him.

"Do you have personnel files on your drivers, Mr. Carson?" Hutch asked reaching for the ledger.

"Yes, do you want to take those, too?"

"Only if they have photo IDs in them."

"Well, I have a copy of their current driver's license, that's got a photo on it. I won't hire anyone that doesn't have a good driving record. I'm liable for them driving my truck. I insist they have a clean driving record, and I don't use any...." he hesitated, eyes darting to Flores. "Anyone who isn't a citizen. They've got to have a green card. I make them show it to me."

"That's good, Mr. Carson. Thank you for your co-operation. You've been very helpful. If we can see the photo IDs of the drivers, we won't take up any more of your time," Flores said, smiling as he stepped closer to the desk.

"Here, this is everyone that's currently on the payroll," Carson handed over the small group of files.

"Has anyone quit in recent weeks?" Hutch asked.

"No, the most recent one to quit was one of the part-timers. She was a student, her mother died. She went back to Ohio where she was from. That was about four, maybe five months ago, now."

"Thank you, here's my card. If you think of anything else, or if you have any questions, feel free to call. I wrote on the back of it, one ledger and five personnel folders and today's date." Hutch extended his hand to the older man as Arturo passed his bundle over to the other arm, freeing his right hand to extend in a handshake.

The rest of the day was spent following leads that went nowhere, and it was with no small amount of relief that Hutch headed back to the station to file the reports and put an end to it. Flores was in the same frame of mind. Hutch had seen an edge of distraction throughout the day that was not usually there, manifested by random touches of the beeper he wore on his belt and stopping frequently to call home and check on his wife and the unborn child she carried.

Hutch caught sight of the Torino in the parking lot as he drove in and knew his face had taken on a sappy grin, but he didn't care at all. With more spring to his step than he'd exhibited all day he hurried to the squadroom. Starsky was seated at their desk engaging in an animated discussion with another officer when Hutch and Arturo entered. Flores gave him a pat on the shoulder as he reached over Starsky's back to grab the phone and call home once more before leaving, while Hutch snagged the hand holding the candy bar long enough to take a bite before letting it go.

"Hey, watch the fingers...." Starsky complained good-naturedly in Hutch's direction before turning to Flores. "I suppose you want a bite, too?"

Flores smiled and pinched off a piece of the candy bar with a wink at Hutch, then concentrated his attention on his phone conversation.

"We had a quick and early lunch," Hutch explained, eyeing the candy bar again.

"Oh, no you don't, the rest is mine, go get your own," Starsky warned as he popped what was left of the candy in his mouth and, wadding up the paper, made a successful toss to the trash can at the nearby desk. "Two points," he announced proudly.

"What brings you down here?" Hutch asked, as he shuffled the papers and notes from the interviews of the day.

"Had to pick up the papers for the physical review board so I could drop them off at Dr. Fielding's. She'll add her two cents worth and then I see them for their determination of when I can come back to light duty." Starsky looked up with such a mixture of fear and anticipation that Hutch had to fight the urge to hug him right there in the squadroom.

Hutch reached out a hand to squeeze Starsky's shoulder instead, with a look that sent all his love and reassurance. "You're doing great, babe. There won't be any stopping you," Hutch offered softly.

Arturo hung up and reached for a share of the papers near Hutch's hand. "Here, let me get some of these done, then I need to get home and rescue my mother-in-law. It sounds like she's had all of an irritable pregnant woman and a rambunctious four-year-old she can handle for today."

"Hey, I'll do these, you go on. Take care of things at home, I'll see you tomorrow." Hutch batted Arturo's hand away and motioned him out the door.

"Thanks, man...Dave, you're looking good, see you tomorrow, Hutch," Arturo said as he quickly left.

"What's going on with him at home?" Starsky asked.

"His wife had an episode of premature labor yesterday, she's home in bed until they can keep it stopped. He's been as nervous as a cat all day." Hutch leaned closer to whisper, "He was as bad as I was, worrying about you, when I first came back to work."

Starsky rolled his eyes but took on a smugly pleased expression, even if it was slightly blush-tinged. "Want to go get something to eat?" Starsky asked, standing and grabbing his file folder. "If I'm going to get poked and prodded from one end to the other tomorrow I need to keep up my strength."

"Yeah, you go ahead, get a table at The Pits and order, I'll be right behind you, give me thirty minutes to get a couple of these done." Hutch sat down at the desk and began writing furiously.

Starsky nodded to the other men in the room and walked with almost his usual jaunty stride, out the door.

Hutch stretched at the kink in his back as he sat over the typewriter and glanced up at the clock. His thirty minutes had quickly become over an hour and he pulled out the form he'd just finished, hastily signed it, tossed it in Dobey's box, and made a dash for the door. He zigzagged through early evening traffic and pulled up at The Pits. His dash through the doors stopped short as he pulled his sunglasses off and tried to see in the dim light. He saw the back of a curly head and an arm lift to wave in the air and he headed toward it.

"How'd you know it was me that came in?" Hutch asked as he slid in the booth.

"I figured unless the place was being robbed, nobody else would open the front doors like that." Starsky gave him a slow smile, letting his long fingered hand rub up and down the top of Hutch's thigh where it rested close to his own under the table.

"Sorry I was longer than I thought...."

"It's okay, after all these years, I know how long your thirty minutes can be. I'm hoping that will carry over to some other things," Starsky broadened the grin.

Hutch could feel the heat of the blush starting up his neck to his hairline and knew that even in the dim light, Starsky could see it, too. "Payback's a bitch, keep that in mind," Hutch warned.

The two men nibbled at the nachos while they waited for the order Starsky had put a hold on until Hutch actually arrived, to come to the table. After finishing their meal Starsky snapped his fingers in front of Hutch's face startling him. "What?" Hutch asked.

"You. Where do you go when you get that blank look in your eyes?" Starsky asked. "You've been drifting off a couple of times tonight. What's up?"

"Just thinking about Flores and his wife, I guess."

"Why?" Starsky asked directly.

"They're a nice family. His daughter's really cute, a bright-eyed, happy little girl. Just wondering that's all...."

"About what, Blondie?"

"If you'd given any thought to what you were ready to give up. If you're serious about being in for the long haul with me, you'll never have that, Starsky. I thought it was what you always wanted."

"What about you?" Starsky asked.

"I don't think I ever let that particular balloon fill up with air after Van left me and popped it. It isn't something I can't do without," Hutch answered.

"And you think it is for me?"

"I don't know.... It's something I've heard you talk about as long as I've known you. We've never talked about how this changes everything. I just wondered if you'd have regrets later." Hutch looked at the surface of the table making water-ring circles with his sweating beer mug.

"Right now, Hutch, the only regret I can think about having is what I'd be missing if you hadn't found me at the beach house." Starsky reached to rest a warm hand on Hutch's thigh. "You're all the family I need."

Hutch looked up into sincere blue eyes. "You're all the family I want," he answered softly, covering Starsky's hand with his own.

"Let's get out of here. Your place or mine?" Starsky asked with a suggestive wag of his eyebrows.

"Mine. It's closer," Hutch answered, throwing a ten spot on the table and walking out toward his car with both hands shoved deep in his pockets to hide the erection he was sporting.

He drove to Venice Place in record time, the Torino right behind him. Both men took the stairs two at a time and fell into each other's arms as soon as the door was shut. Hutch drew Starsky tightly against him feeling their heat increase as the two bulges in their jeans pressed together. He vaguely registered that the run had only slightly winded Starsky, and he made a brief mental note to compliment him on it later...much later. At present he was more intent on exploring every centimeter of the hungry mouth pressed against his. Hutch groaned as Starsky's hands grasped his ass and ground their groins together.

"If you don't stop long enough for me to get naked I won't be wearing these jeans tomorrow, and they're the last clean pair I have," Hutch panted in the warm spot between Starsky's neck and shoulder.

Starsky's breath woofed out in a chuckle and he pulled back. His impatient fingers fumbling with the buttons on Hutch's shirt, while Hutch loosened his belt and slipped free of the tight jeans, raking down his briefs in the process. Hutch's cock sprang free and he gave a sigh in appreciation of the freedom. He reached to take Starsky's jacket off, tossing it on the couch out of his way, but when he reached for the shirt, Starsky stiffened and hesitated. "Let's go in the bedroom," he said, his voice a husky whisper. Hutch held out his hand and let Starsky lead the way. As they entered the alcove Hutch's hand went for the light switch and Starsky deliberately pulled him past it. "Leave it off...please?" Starsky asked without turning. "There's enough light coming in from the other room." Starsky turned then, a slightly artificial smile pasted to his lips softening the request for darkness that broke Hutch's heart. The smile melted into an increasingly hot gaze up and down the naked blond. "Come here, make love with me." Starsky slid his own jeans down his legs and jerked free of his shirt before kneeling to get in the center of the big bed.

Hutch crawled in next to his lover, both hands softly caressing up Starsky's legs to his belly, kissing and running his tongue lightly through the soft hair and continuing up to his chest. He kissed and nipped at his nipples, loving the passion-driven sounds coming from Starsky. "I love you," Hutch whispered against Starsky's neck before sucking strongly on the tender flesh there, marking him. "I love, loving you. You're so beautiful, my heart sings when I touch you, when I hear how you respond to me. To see you so hot and know I took you there. It means everything."

Starsky arched into Hutch's demanding mouth, covering his back and butt with hands that kneaded and pressed their bodies closer. Starsky eased his body under Hutch and lined their cocks up to rub wildly against each other. The pre-cum leaking from them both added to the pleasure. "Come with me, Hutch. God, just another couple of strokes, I'm so close. Yeah, oh, babe, just like that, harder now...faster. God, Hutch, I'm gonna...ohhhhh, yeah, now, NOW...Hutch, let me feel you...." Starsky screamed his completion into Hutch's mouth, as the hot spurts that Starsky shot between them took Hutch over the edge as well.

Hutch eased his shaking body off to the side and drew Starsky tightly against him. He planted tiny kisses in between panting breaths on whatever flesh his lips could reach, covering Starsky's shoulder and face.

"Holy shit, I feel like a seventeen-year-old discovering sex all over again," Starsky gasped, his hand rubbing idly up and down the incision on his torso.

"You okay? I didn't hurt you laying on you like I was, did I?" Hutch asked when he noticed the motion.

"No, I'm fine." Starsky stilled his hand and moved it to rest on the side of Hutch's face. "I'm better than I can ever remember being. Everything's great." Starsky ruffled Hutch's damp hair and smiled before letting his arm drop back to the bed. "I love you, too."

Hutch eased away to get out of bed when Starsky's voice stopped him. "Where ya going?"

"To shower, sorry to break the mood, but I am not sleeping in sticky sheets. Come on, you, too."

"Man, the honeymoon's over before we ever had one," Starsky complained good-naturedly, but moved as directed to follow Hutch to the bathroom.

The rest of the evening passed in front of the TV as Starsky watched an old black and white creature feature, and Hutch sat reading, with Starsky's legs draped over his thighs. With a jaw-cracking yawn as the final credits rolled, Starsky stretched and got up. He padded into the kitchen to peruse the inside of the refrigerator, then checked the cabinets for snacks. Finally shutting the doors with a shrug, he paced to the greenhouse window and then back by the couch. But didn't sit down.

Hutch watched the restless movements without comment until he couldn't stand it any longer. "What's wrong?"

"Nothin', why?" Starsky asked.

"You're acting like we're in our last hour of a stake-out and you can't wait to get relieved and get out," Hutch said.

"Oh...I'm just a little wired. Thinking about tomorrow, I guess," Starsky answered as he paced back toward the greenhouse. He stood there looking out into the twinkling lights of the city drawing Hutch's orange bathrobe more closely around him.

"Starsky, tomorrow is the first step in a process. It isn't the final answer by any means. Even if they say you aren't clear for light duty tomorrow that doesn't mean they won't clear you next week, or the week after. What did Dr. Fielding say? She's making the recommendation, right?"

"Yeah, she told me what she was recommending."

"And?" Hutch prompted.

"She's pretty much given me a green light to do anything I want. Told me to use my own judgment, stop if I got tired or something hurt...." Starsky turned briefly with a short laugh, "More than it usually does." Looking back out on the city he continued, "That's better than I ever imagined a couple of weeks ago. Her only stipulation is that I'm not assigned to any of the holding cell areas so I wouldn't be likely to get in any fights. Body blows right now wouldn't be high on her list of activities." Starsky unconsciously rubbed at his midsection, then stopped when he noticed the action and slowly lowered his hand.

Hutch stretched and stood, closing his book and setting it aside. "I'm beat, you coming to bed?" He asked as he moved toward the sleeping alcove.

"Yeah, I'll be there in a little while, you go ahead. My tossing and turning would just keep you awake." Starsky rubbed at his incision again as he spoke.

"Are you hurting? You keep rubbing your chest. Before when we were making...."

"No, you didn't hurt me...I'm fine." Starsky took in a deep breath and let it out with an air of frustration. "This time of day everything hurts, you know? Tonight isn't any different."

"Take something so you can get a good night's sleep."

"No! They might do a urine test for a drug screen, I want to be clean."

"Starsky, you're being reviewed to come back for light duty. There's nothing wrong with you still taking a prescription for pain pills if you need it. It's what the doctor gave you."

"I said no, not even an aspirin and that's final, so leave it alone. I'm not going to hand them anything to use against me for re-instatement. It'll be uphill enough, don't you think?"

Starsky drew in a shaky breath and ran his fingers over his face and through his hair. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to take it out on you, go on to bed, babe. I'll be in as soon as I can."

Hutch nodded and went toward the big bed pulling off his sweat pants and tossing them over the top of the open closet door. He cast a glance back at his still pacing lover and walked to the linen closet and rummaged for a moment. Finding what he sought, he went back to the bed. The scrabbling in the closet piqued Starsky's attention and he drew closer.

"What are you doing?" Starsky asked.

"Getting something to help you rest," Hutch answered as he leaned past the nightstand to plug in the heating pad. Hutch settled in bed, holding the covers up in invitation. "Come here, let me hold you. See if this will help."

Starsky shrugged out of Hutch's robe and kneed his way into bed.

Hutch pulled Starsky closely to him, settling the smaller man's back tightly against his own chest and placed the heating pad against Starsky's abdomen his large hands holding it in place there. After a moment he could feel Starsky's body respond to the warmth engulfing him on both sides. Hutch let his hand, hot from holding the heating pad firmly in place, slide between the pad and Starsky's body, rubbing slow firm circles over Starsky's abdomen and chest, and was gratified to feel Starsky relax even more.

"It's going to be all right tomorrow, don't worry...."

"Ever play ‘what if'?" Starsky asked.

"What?"

"When I was a kid, Nicky and I used to play this game with Mom. We'd say ‘what if'...and we'd say the most outrageous thing we could think of and she'd answer accordingly. But she'd always end it with, ‘but I'll still love you'." Starsky grasped Hutch's hand and wove their fingers together. "So it might be something like...what if I flunked Math? And she'd say, ‘Well, you'll just have to try harder and ask for help, but I'll still love you'," Starsky said.

"So you might say what if I got in a fight at school and they expelled me...?" Hutch started.

"She'd say, ‘I've told you before about fighting and I wouldn't like it, but I'd still love you'."

"Your mother was a smart woman. You were lucky to grow up that way," Hutch sighed. "So, what if I said I didn't want to be a cop anymore and we should go rob banks in Bolivia?" Hutch asked.

"I'd say we can't do that, but I'll still love you," Starsky answered.

Hutch responded by kissing the side of Starsky's neck and snuggling him close in a warm hug.

"What if...?" Starsky started then was quiet. Hutch just waited. "What if they don't let me come back?" Starsky asked, his voice so quiet Hutch had to lean in to hear him.

"Then you'll do something else and I'll still love you," Hutch answered.

"Will you?" Starsky asked.

"With everything in me...forever," Hutch answered with solid conviction. He leaned over and kissed along Starsky's shoulder and neck again, flattening his hand to resume the slow circles over Starsky's abdomen, each pass going lower until Hutch eased his fingers free of Starsky's hand altogether and rubbed his hand over the warm skin. He ran his long fingers in tickling trails through the soft curls below Starsky's belly button, avoiding the hard and bobbing cock that jutted up toward the roving hand. Hutch skimmed his fingers up the softer, sparser hair on Starsky's body toward his chest where it became thicker and coarser again. At intervals the fleshy pads of his fingers would swipe across differently textured skin and it wasn't until he felt Starsky stiffen and twist slightly that he realized Starsky was trying to move his torso so Hutch's fingers missed touching the scars at all.

Oh, babe, what am I going to have to do to make you believe you aren't ugly and that the scars don't matter?

Trailing his fingers down to circle Starsky's cock he stroked slowly, running his thumb over the head every few strokes the way he knew Starsky liked. Hutch pressed closer to run his tongue along the rim of Starsky's ear, then moved down to kiss and suck along his neck and the junction of his shoulder. Starsky was squirming and making pleasured moaning noises. Hutch kissed back up toward Starsky's ear to whisper hotly, "Feel good? You're so beautiful like this...so hot and getting ready to come. Go with it, babe, come for me...." The words worked their magic and Starsky grabbed Hutch's thigh where it rested behind his ass in a fierce grip and bucked his hips strongly into Hutch's fist as it stroked him. He sent his ejaculate flowing over Hutch's hand in strong spurts. Starsky's breath came in air-hungry gulps, as he slowly loosened his white-knuckled grip of Hutch's leg and relaxed bonelessly against Hutch's body.

"Oh, man," Starsky moaned. "I can't believe what you do to me...."

"Think you can sleep now?" Hutch asked.

"What about you?" Starsky reached for Hutch's groin.

"Me?" Hutch answered. "I came right after you, just watching you."

"No shit?" Starsky asked, looking amazed.

"I can't believe what you do to me either," Hutch answered with a laugh as he eased off the bed pulling at his briefs. He went into the bathroom and returned with a warm cloth and towel.

He cleaned off his sleepy lover, and dropping the wet things on the floor, he snuggled in place and wrapped Starsky in his arms again.

"Thanks," came the soft mumble and it was the last thing Hutch heard.

**********

Starsky hummed to himself as he opened the door to the squadroom with his typical flourish. With a wink at one of the female officers and a wave at Simmons, Starsky moved jauntily over to his desk. He ran his hand lovingly over the piggybank and dug in his jeans for some change to feed it. Taking note of some of the doodling and recognizing the style as Hutch's, he grabbed a pen and drew a prominent mustache on one of the large-nosed cartoon faces Hutch usually drew. It was a long-standing joke between them that dated back to their Academy days. It was their form of ‘Gilroy was here.' He let his eyes rake over the surface of the desk, seeing the additions. He saw notes on the appointment pad in a handwriting he didn't recognize and felt his earlier elation ebb. Don't get too comfortable, Flores, this won't be your desk long if I have any say in it. Starsky turned to look around, drinking in the familiarity and drawing a sort of strength from it.

The door behind him opened and a voice bellowed, "Starsky! How the hell are you? Good to see you. I got the call a few minutes ago, does Hutch know yet?"

"No, I came by to tell him myself, but they must be out...."

Looking at his watch, "They'll be checking in before too long. Flores is a pretty committed family man, like's to get out of here on time whenever he can." Dobey laid down the stack of files in his hand and clapped Starsky on the back as he returned to his office. "Damn glad to have you back, even if it's light duty to start with."

"Thanks, Cap', great to be back." Starsky looked at the stack of files and slowly sat in his old chair. "I won't consider myself back until I'm right here and nobody else's coffee cup is taking up space," Starsky muttered. He let his hand drift to the cup with the Phoenix PD logo on it and was surprised to find the sides of the cup still warm. Much warmer than he would have expected if both detectives were out in the field. He glanced at his watch with a grimace, knowing he couldn't wait much longer if he was going to get these papers from the board to Dr. Fielding's office for her signature today, so he could return with them to work in the morning.

He left the squadroom making a detour to the men's room before hitting the road, already making plans in his mind for the celebration dinner he'd make for Hutch tonight at his place. As he pushed into the men's washroom, he saw two figures huddled in the far corner. The back that faced him, he would recognize from the opposite end of a football field. The sight of that body standing in the bathroom with his arms wrapped around another man hit Starsky like automatic weapon fire and took his breath. For a few seconds Starsky really believed his legs would buckle and he'd make his presence known in the washroom by falling flat on his face. Then his ears kicked in and he heard the sound of sobbing. Shaking his head to clear the red rage of jealousy that was threatening to blind him, he looked at the stance of the two men. This time really seeing. Hutch stood, arms wrapped around Arturo Flores while the younger man was crying bitterly into Hutch's shoulder. He was clutching handfuls of Hutch's jacket in his intense misery. But Starsky's rage lessened very little. All he could feel at that moment was what it felt like to be so engulfed. Those arms that had held him so many times over the years, and the level their physical relationship had escalated to over the past weeks, had taken those hugs to a whole new height. Now there was another man sheltered in that wonderful comfort, usurping Starsky's place. He really didn't give a shit why. At that moment, the reason didn't matter. No one belonged inside Hutch's arms but him.

"I'm so sorry, Arturo," Hutch's voice intoned. "Your wife is safe, the two of you can have other children. I know that doesn't help the pain right now, but someday it won't hurt so badly, believe me. That is one thing I do know. Time will heal it."

"She looked so guilty when she told me, like it was her fault, like she'd done something wrong that caused it. She didn't do anything, it wasn't her fault she lost the baby." Arturo stopped to cough out another sob. "She kept apologizing that she'd lost our son, like the fact that it was a boy made it harder for me somehow. Why would she think that? I don't love my daughter less than I would if she'd been a boy. This baby was my child, I didn't care what sex it was...I just wanted it. Oh, God, how I wanted it. My child, our child...he was so tiny, so perfect, but just too little to live." Arturo took in a shuddering breath and pulled back, wiping his face and straightening out of Hutch's arms. "I need to get my car and go back to the hospital. The doctor said I could take her home this evening if she isn't bleeding too much and not running a fever or anything, I think that will help. Be home, us together. It'll be good for both of us." Arturo glanced up and met Starsky's gaze looking a bit uncomfortable as he cleared his throat and stepped to the sink to wash his face. Hutch hovered close, appearing not to have picked up on the presence of anyone else in the room.

"Yeah, hey, if there's anything you need, give me a call, huh?" Hutch asked, resting a hand on Arturo's shoulder and giving it a squeeze. "Anything, doesn't matter what time it is either, okay?"

Arturo nodded his thanks, meeting Hutch's eyes in a serious look as if gauging to see if the words had been just empty expressions. Seeming to internalize that they had indeed been sincere, he nodded again and left the washroom, giving Starsky a short nod as he passed.

Hutch took in a deep breath and stood staring into the mirror. The surprise on his face clearly showed he had no knowledge of Starsky's earlier arrival.

Starsky took in his own expression as it was reflected back, but was helpless to soften any of the stony features. He stood stiffly in accusatory silence.

"Flores's wife lost their baby. It was a boy. We just got back from the hospital...he was dropping me off so he could go back there and I could bum a ride home." Hutch walked slowly over to the urinal to relieve himself. As he zipped he turned to look at Starsky, Hutch's face darkening in a frown. "What's the matter?"

Starsky stared at Hutch, struggling to get the earlier picture of his lover and Arturo out of his mind. He fought within himself, wanting to let go of the anger and the jealous hurt of a few minutes ago, and feel sorry for the grief the Flores family was experiencing, but he couldn't do it.

"Come on, I've got to get to Dr. Fielding's office before they close. She's got to sign a paper for the department." Starsky turned without another word and headed for the car.

The blond got in the car with a slam of the door and stared straight ahead while Starsky pulled out into traffic. He knew Hutch hadn't deserved his abrupt attitude and he knew it wouldn't be long before his partner called him on it, yet he was dreading having to explain what he'd been feeling. Hutch had never given him any reason to be jealous, and they had talked out Starsky's feelings about Flores at length while they were at the beach house. Starsky himself didn't fully understand where that dark rage had come from, but he easily recognized it for what it was.

Taking a deep breath in preparation to face the music he turned to Hutch. "I'm sorry."

"What the fuck is the matter with you?" Hutch said at the same time.

"You first," Hutch jumped in again.

"I'm sorry...I...I...I don't know what to say. I was all excited to tell you I got the re-instatement for light duty and came by to surprise you and you weren't anywhere around. I figured you were working, and I'd just go home and fix something special and surprise you there later. I walked in the john and saw you and Flores in a clinch...."

"You saw us in a what?" Hutch exploded.

"He was all wrapped up in...." Starsky started, hating the way the explanation sounded even to his own ears.

"Pull over!" Hutch demanded.

"What?"

"You heard me, we aren't going to discuss this not looking at each other, and you can't look at me and drive. Pull the fucking car over!"

Starsky changed lanes and exited off the main street they were traveling and pulled into the almost empty parking lot of a small strip mall. He turned off the engine and waited for the continued fireworks from the passenger side of the car. There was nothing but silence. He let his hands fall away from the steering wheel and slowly turned to look at Hutch.

"I said I was sorry...." Starsky started as he searched his lover's face.

"I don't understand where this is coming from, Starsk. We're just getting started and you're acting like I'm some hormone driven flake that can't keep his hands to himself. Have I ever given you any reason to believe I'd cheat on you?"

"No."

"You've known me forever. Even when my marriage was in the crapper, was I unfaithful to Van?" Hutch asked.

"No."

"Then why would you think, seeing me holding Flores, that there was anything sexual going on? Why wouldn't you initially assume there had been some tragedy?" Hutch's eyes were chips of ice-blue flint.

"I...I don't know why.... That's the first thing I thought of, okay? I don't know. I saw you and all I could think of was all the times as your partner before we got together like we are now, how you held me like that...it just seemed threatening somehow, I guess. I said I was sorry. Look, I feel like shit about it. Not only for the way you're looking at me...like I crawled out from under a rock, but for Arturo's family, too. Don't make me feel any worse, okay? I apologized, what else do you want me to do?"

"I want you to trust me." The words were spoken softly and without anger or accusation, but their impact was extreme. Starsky felt his breath catch painfully.

"I do, Hutch, I swear to God, I do. I trust you with everything I have...everything I am. That's nothing new, I've always trusted you." Starsky reached out to grip Hutch's arm.

"You trust me as your friend and your partner, and as a cop. Trust me as your lover, will ya? Trust me that I love you, not just for now, but for the long haul. Believe me when I tell you I love you, I don't want anyone else, just you...just you...." Hutch paused to let the emphasis of that sink in. "You, exactly as you are. Cop, not a cop, scars and all. Can you wrap that thick head of yours around that?" Hutch covered Starsky's hand "Do you trust me enough to leave the light on?"

Starsky instantly recognized what Hutch was asking, and sitting there in the front seat of his Torino fully clothed, he had never felt so nakedly vulnerable. He looked into Hutch's face and knew his lover deserved that trust. His mind flashed back to days in the hospital when he'd been so sick. Hutch had held him sweaty and throwing up, bathed him, emptied bedpans, there was no level of intimacy Hutch had shied away from. If it was something Starsky needed, Hutch did it, without hesitation and without compromising his dignity in the process. Starsky knew in his heart, if the situation had been reversed, he'd have done the same thing. So why was this so hard? He swallowed as best he could around his suddenly cotton-filled mouth and whispered, "I'll try."

"That's all I've ever asked of you," Hutch answered and leaned across the car to cover Starsky's lips with his own in a gentle kiss. When Hutch pulled back, Starsky felt Hutch's hands tangle in his hair on each side of his head and grip the curls there. The next meeting of their mouths was more demanding. Starsky opened up willingly to the plundering tongue, meeting it eagerly with his own. After a moment they eased apart. When the world felt like it was on a solid foundation again, Starsky smiled as he looked under lazy, passion-hooded eyes into a face he knew as well as his own.

"Let's go, before you miss Dr. Fielding," Hutch said. He smiled back and tousled Starsky's hair before sliding to his own side of the car.

**********

The stop at Starsky's doctor quickly turned into a rowdy celebration with laughter and hugs all around. As Dr. Fielding handed back the form for Starsky to report to work with the next morning she passed him an envelope with it.

"I took the liberty of getting you something to celebrate with. One of my patients just opened a restaurant, go, enjoy, let me know if the food's good. If you get sick, don't sue me. See you next month," Dr. Fielding said, her smile growing as Starsky leaned over to kiss her cheek in thanks.

As they walked to the car Starsky handed the envelope to Hutch, while he looked with supreme satisfaction at the paperwork Dr. Fielding had signed, reinstating him in the ranks of the employed.

"This is for fifty dollars. It's that place we saw down by the beach with all the flags out in front, remember, you pointed it out to me? We thought it looked interesting. Small world."

"Let's go now, then. I was gonna cook, but this is better, and I'll think of something special to celebrate with you when we get back to my place."

"Mine's closer." Hutch offered.

"We were there last time, mine has a mirror on the ceiling...." Starsky felt himself blush and Hutch laughed aloud, the dark cloud of earlier lifted.

The meal was good and both men appreciated the quiet, intimate atmosphere they could enjoy, being well ahead of the normal dinner crowd. After dessert they drove to Starsky's, detouring by Hutch's long enough for him to pick up clothes to wear to work the next day.

The atmosphere from the restaurant continued in Starsky's apartment as he went around lighting candles while Hutch tuned in the radio station that boasted "Love Songs from the Coast." Hutch took Starsky's hand after he lit the last candle and drew him into his arms, kissing his face and neck. Starsky leaned into his partner's warm lips, loving the feel of them on his skin. Starsky pulled at Hutch's shirttails to get his hands under the shirt and run the length of the smooth skin on Hutch's back and pull them closer.

"This has been a beautiful evening, thank you," Hutch whispered into Starsky neck, causing a shiver.

"It ain't over yet, Blondie...come here." Starsky took Hutch's hand and moved toward the bedroom. There were candles glowing on the bedside table and several more on the windowsill nearby. The room was bathed in a soft fragrant glow. Starsky turned just inside the door and, placing his hands on either side of Hutch's face, pulled it down to him and kissed him sweetly. He reached past Hutch's shoulder to flip on the light switch and smiled when Hutch opened his eyes from the kiss and blinked at the brighter light. Hutch looked up briefly at the mirrored ceiling and swung a hand around to turn off the light.

"The glare will interfere with the view. The candles will do nicely tonight. But I appreciate the offer," Hutch said gently.

"You sure?" Starsky asked.

"I'm sure," Hutch's response was soft, as his lips met Starsky's and they stumbled toward the bed to fall in a tangle of arms and legs.

Clothes hit the floor in record time and the kisses became hotter and more demanding. Starsky looked up into the mirror and saw Hutch's long body covering most of his. The candle flickers picking up the angles, and every bit of light in the room seemed to center on the pale blond hair that fell in such a striking contrast next to his own dark curls. "You look like an angel laying over me." Starsky's whisper finally broke the silence.

Hutch leaned on one elbow and rose over Starsky to look down into his face. "I love you, my angel."

"Show me." Starsky's entreaty fanned his own fire and he knew it worked similarly on Hutch, as he saw his partner's nostrils flare with a quick intake of breath before that beautiful, lush mouth lowered to kiss him again. Hutch's mouth left his to travel down his neck and shoulder, then kiss a path to first one nipple then the other, the little bites and sucks sending shooting stars right to his groin. The onslaught was slow and lingering, an exquisite torture that had Starsky thrashing on the bed, his arms and legs trembled by the time Hutch's mouth took him into the wet heat that finished him. Fighting the afterglow that tried to pull him into sleep, he reached for Hutch to take that long golden cock in his mouth and pleasure him the way Starsky had been pleasured. The soft moans and groans of appreciation that Starsky heard from above him egged him on. He could feel Hutch's soft balls as they drew up in preparation for his climax and Starsky sucked harder, taking in as much of Hutch's length as he possibly could. He fought the gag that threatened with the force of the spurts hitting the back of his throat, and hung on until Hutch shivered one last time and sank like jello into the bed.

Starsky crawled back up Hutch's body to the open arms that awaited him. He rested his cheek against Hutch's smooth chest, and relaxed into the warm embrace. He glanced up at the mirror, seeing their arms and legs wrapped around each other and smiled at the sight. Resting his head to nuzzle his lips against Hutch's chest, he noticed their reflection in the mirror on his dresser, seeing the reflection cast from the ceiling at a different angle. The angle coming from slightly over Starsky's shoulder giving him an unobstructed view of his back where it was visible below Hutch's arm. The unnatural whiteness of the scars of the multiple exit wounds shone starkly in the candlelight, and Starsky's perception of their disfigurement totally ruined the mood. He reached roughly for the sheet to cover himself, deliberately not lingering on the questioning glance from his lover.

Hutch drew the sheet over Starsky and snuggled him more closely in his arms, kissing the top of his head then releasing him to slowly get out of bed.

"Where you going?" Starsky asked, a tingle of fear sharpening his voice.

"To get something, I'll be right back." Hutch's answer was calming, and Starsky fought to rid the mental picture of what he'd seen in the candlelight from his mind's eye.

Hutch padded back to the bedroom carrying Starsky's guitar. He held it close to his ear as he strummed softly, tuning it. "Move over," he instructed, easing into the bed facing Starsky, and began to play chords. "I want you to listen, to think, and pay attention, damn it."

Hutch began a slow picking melody, then started to hum a tune Starsky had never heard before. Pulling himself to sit straighter in the bed and doubling a pillow to support him, he waited. Then Hutch began to sing a haunting soft melody with words that struck him straight in the heart.

"What do I see when I look at you?
Sometimes you're a winter man
Wrapped in winds of discontent,
Your cool, calm and collected sham
Hides deep layers of regret,
But I'll stand by and watch the tide
Waiting for the ice to break,
I'll let my loving be your warmth
Mine to give and yours to take.
Sometimes you're a summer breeze
Sweet and sunny on the sand,
Playing out where nature frees
The boy that's in the man,
And I'll come out and watch you run
Follow footprints in the sand,
Your laughing eyes will warm my soul
As you come and take my hand.
When I look at you glowing with sunshine
And I watch you playing your games,
I see reflections of life like a summer wine
And I'll stay with you In love's name.
What do I see when I look at you?"*

Starsky stared as Hutch looked down to watch his fingers pick the last refrain again in retard and then slowly set the guitar aside. "What do I see, Starsky? Everything that means anything to me." Hutch eased the sheet down a few inches and leaned over to place a soft kiss on the center of Starsky's scarred abdomen. "You're beautiful." Hutch smiled a little self-consciously. "I said you made my heart sing, so I wrote that for you, pretty sappy, huh?"

"Yeah," Starsky replied, swallowing against the lump in his throat that threatened to choke him. "But I liked it. One of the nicest things anyone has ever given me. Write the words out so I can have them? I might need to refer to them once in a while, until I can really believe it."

"Sure, but you better work on believing it, Mister. I'd hate to have to tattoo them on your ass." Hutch laughed, and Starsky joined him before pulling his lover back to lie fully out on the bed with him. After a few more soft and lingering kisses they fell asleep.

**********

The next morning was a flurry of playful excitement, as they got ready to go into work together. When they hit the squadroom there was a note on Hutch's desk saying Detective Flores had taken a personal leave day to stay home with his wife. After reading it Hutch passed it without comment to Starsky. "We should call him, see if they need anything...." Starsky offered solemnly. "I'll check with Minnie and see if she's started a collection or anything yet." Hutch nodded, giving Starsky a soft smile.

"Welcome back, partner," Hutch said.

"Let me go check in down in R & I and see if there's anything pressing I need to do there, if not I'll come up here and help you go through the interviews and stuff, okay?"

Hutch nodded again, "I'll make some fresh coffee." He all but danced to the coffeepot, feeling more right with the world than he had for months.

He was sitting at his desk sipping hot coffee and shuffling papers into piles according to each burglary location when Starsky returned.

"Minnie's got a pot going for Flores, the slush fund is sending a plant to the house and I put in money for both of us and signed the card." Starsky looked so earnest when Hutch met his gaze, it warmed him more than the hot coffee.

"Thanks, I'm sure it'll help as much as anything like that can, with him being so new here. Got to be tough." Hutch shook his head sadly.

"Yeah, we should give him a call or drop by maybe later. Take a pizza or something," Starsky offered.

"Yeah, I'd like to do that." Hutch smiled at his lover, at that moment not giving a damn who saw him. "In the meantime, let's get to work on this case, what d'ya say?"

"What is it?" Starsky asked, turning his chair backward to straddle it and reaching for the nearest stack of files.

"Multiple burglaries in an affluent, gated community, the last one resulted in a homicide," Hutch answered.

"Not really any single strand of commonality to speak of. A few of them had the same gardener, but not all; a few used the same cleaners for pick-up and delivery of laundry, but not all. I feel like it's right under my nose, but I just can't see it, you know?" Hutch scraped his chair closer, to look at the various pages with Starsky.

"Why don't we go pay a visit to each one again? Let me get a feel, maybe there's something new they've thought of," Starsky asked hopefully.

"I don't know. If there was a call of some sort, are you okay with sitting in the car? Light duty means just that. I won't take a chance...."

"Hey, mother hen. It's okay. We'll sit out anything, just go there and back. Okay?"

"Okay," Hutch answered, convinced in his heart that no matter what Starsky asked right now, he'd do it.

They spent the rest of the afternoon making stops at each of the residences that had been victimized. Hutch introduced Starsky at each place with the pride of a parent showing off a child newly ensconced on the honor roll, and Starsky reveled in it. As they finished up at the last stop, Starsky was looking over some notes he'd scribbled as they went from one address to the other.

"Okay, they don't use the same security system and you checked to see if there were any connections between the employees of the companies represented and came up empty. Did you notice anything else that they all had in common?"

"Like what?" Hutch asked, as he parked the car in front of Parker Center.

"Like their health...." Starsky started, looking a bit uncomfortable. "I guess I might not have noticed either, if I wasn't mending myself, but each one of those people had some health issue they were dealing with."

"What are you talking about?" Hutch asked, reaching their desk, he flipped open his own notes on the case. "One of the sisters has arthritis, she uses a walker and a wheelchair sometimes, I saw it in the hallway."

"Yes, and Mrs. Zychowicz had a bad back, remember her husband's comment?" Starsky asked.

"The other house, Petries? He has bad knees. Probably from college football if the trophies in the library are any indication. And Mrs. Petrie, did you notice the way she held her head? She had a scar down the front of her neck and she didn't hardly turn her head at all. It was like her neck was almost stiff."

"Yeah, I remember when we interviewed her the first time she was rubbing at it, and I guess I thought it was stress at the time. She noticed me watching her because she made a reference to having a bad neck. She said she had a cervical fusion, but it hadn't helped much. You're right, they all have some orthopedic issue. You think they might use the same doctor?" Hutch asked.

"If not the same doctor, maybe the same physical therapist, same pharmacy. Do they have their prescriptions delivered?"

Hutch rifled through his notes, I think I asked them about any delivery services they used and that wasn't a common thread, but I know we never inquired about doctors or physical therapists. If they had doctor's appointments or therapy on a weekly basis, that would get them out of the house at a specific time. All the robberies were in broad daylight. Let's see, Mrs. Zychowicz was the one who came home unexpectedly and was killed. She was coming home from getting her hair done."

"Okay, but was that the only place she'd gone? Did she have another appointment before or after that on the same day?" Starsky asked.

"I don't know, we didn't explore that." Hutch looked up and felt his face break into a big smile. "You may be on to something, let's check it out."

Hutch picked up the phone and, fumbling with the pages in his notebook, found the number he was looking for and quickly dialed it.

"Mr. Zychowicz, I'm sorry to bother you, this is Detective Hutchinson. My partner and I were there a short time ago. I need one more bit of information if you can help us, please. When your wife returned to the house the day of the burglary, you said she'd been coming from the hairdresser. Was that the only appointment she had that morning? Could she have gone some place else first, or had another appointment later in the day that she didn't go to?"

"She had a physical therapy appointment, then a massage. After that she went to get her hair done. The appointment in front of her had cancelled so she was taken early at the hairdresser's. Otherwise she'd have never surprised them...funny just one appointment off and it made such a difference," Stan said sadly.

"Yes, sir. That appears to be it exactly. Do you happen to know the name of the facility that your wife went to for her therapy?"

"San Marcos Rehab Center."

"Is that where she had the massage as well?"

"Yes...well sometimes. If she was going to be out, she'd go there, other times the massage therapist came here to the house. It just depended on how she felt."

"Is the massage therapist with the rehab center, or someone she independently contracted with?" Hutch asked.

"I'm not sure. Both at times, I think. She preferred to have it done here. She felt it did her more good if she could have it here at home rather than becoming all relaxed and having to drive home and tense up all over again. But it was harder to get the appointment for the therapist to come here. Why?"

"We're just checking every possible connection, that's all. Thank you so much for your time. You've been very helpful. I hope I won't need to bother you anymore today."

"Catch my wife's killer, Detective, and I don't care how many times you need to bother me. We were married forty-three years. She was my best friend. Do you know what that feels like? To lose your best friend?"

"Yes, sir, I do." Hutch closed his eyes against the memory of time spent staring through an ICU window and took in a steadying breath. "We'll keep you posted on our progress, sir. Goodbye."

"Bingo!" Hutch leaned back in the chair and beamed at his lover. "She had come from a PT visit and was taken in early at the hairdresser's because the person ahead of her cancelled. That's why she got home early."

"Timing is everything," Starsky muttered with a sad shake of his head. "So let's go check out the rehab center. Maybe some of the therapists there moonlight and go to patients' homes. They'd have to get in to know what to target. There was a lot of general stuff worth stealing at these places, but they only took the high priced jewelry and art. They had to have been there before to know where it was and what it was worth."

"Right, let's go...partner."

They were almost out the door when a shrill shout stopped both men, "Starsky!" Minnie stood with her hands on her hips. "Where do you think you're going now? I've got a pile of work with your name on it, you trashy boy. No sneaking out of here again, you hear me?"

"But, Minnie, we've got a lead here to check out—"

"You let tall, blond and handsome do the checking. Until there's a note from the medical board to say otherwise, you belong to me. Got that?"

Starsky hesitated, looking toward Hutch for help. Hutch moved closer to the small, uniformed woman, sliding his arm around her slender shoulders. "Minnie, this is really an important break-through on a big case. It's perfectly safe. You know I'd never do anything that would put Starsky at risk before he was back physically at one hundred percent," Hutch said.

"What I know, blue-eyes, is that Dobey has called down looking for Starsky twice now, and just like the two of you, he's my boss, too. The next time he calls, Starsky is going to be there to answer the phone, you dig?"

Starsky stepped back, looking defeated. Hutch watched Minnie as she walked out from under his arm and, with a pull on Starsky's sleeve, she took him with her toward R & I.

"I'll go check it out and get back with you as soon as I can. Hang in there, buddy," Hutch said as Starsky and Minnie moved down the hall.

Hutch drove to the address he'd gotten when he looked up the San Marcos Rehabilitation Center. He alternated between feeling the elation of earlier when it had felt so good for ideas to bounce and mesh between him and Starsky as if the last months had never happened, and resenting the fact that he was going on a call to check out an idea that had been Starsky's, without him.

He parked the car and walked into the lush lobby of the center. After flashing his badge for the receptionist he was ushered into the director's office. A muscular man at the desk stood and extended his hand as Hutch entered. "Detective Hutchinson, come in, I'm Derek Hanson, how can I help you?"

"Mr. Hanson, I'm investigating a series of robberies, the last of which resulted in a homicide."

"I don't see how that is anything I can help you with."

"Mr. Hanson, one of the patients you've treated here was killed in a burglary when she returned home early and surprised them. A number of the other homes that were burglarized may have had physical therapy treatments here. If not in this facility itself, by perhaps massage therapists they may have come in contact with through this facility.

"That would be Mrs. Zychowicz you're referring to then? Yes, she was a patient here. I don't know about any problems with any of the other patients, no one that I'm aware of has mentioned they were robbed."

"Do you provide in-home services for your patients?" Hutch asked, sitting down in the leather chair making solid eye contact with the man behind the desk, wondering what it was about him that made the hair on the back of his neck stand up.

"Yes, we have in-home services for patients who are unable to come here for treatments." Hanson crossed largely muscled arms over his chest.

"Do you have a log of which therapists went to patients homes and when?"

"Yes, but Mrs. Zychowicz wasn't a patient who was on the home care program. She was able to get around pretty well, she could drive and she routinely came here."

Hutch took in the stance of the large man, and it suddenly struck him why he felt such an instant dislike. He reminded him of the therapist in the hospital who had worked a few times with Starsky. A man, built much like Hanson, maybe a few years younger, but the same beefed-up hard body that seemed to take almost a sadistic pleasure in pushing Starsky too hard and hurting him with his manipulation, then discounting any indications Starsky gave that he was in pain. The last session Starsky had with the guy that Hutch had witnessed was the last straw. Hutch had put an end to it after taking all he could handle of the "no pain, no gain" mentality. He took Starsky back to his room and demanded that another therapist be assigned to him, and Starsky had never been subjected to the sadistic bastard again. In Hutch's mind, the two men were cut from the same cloth, and he was very glad Minnie had intervened and Starsky was not with him to be reminded of the painful humiliation.

"Mr. Zychowicz told me his wife had therapy at the house. Was she treated at another therapy center, in addition to this one, that you're aware of?" Hutch asked leaning forward slightly.

"I doubt it, if I remember correctly, she was sent here because we had the contract with her insurance company. She wouldn't have gone anywhere else unless she paid for it, which she certainly could have, living in the Heights," Hanson answered.

"Do any of your therapists moonlight?" Hutch asked.

"Do you mean doing in-home therapy for the patients that come here and getting paid under the table for it?" Hanson's smug expression intensified. "That would be grounds for dismissal."

"Have you terminated any of your employees for that practice?"

"Not since I took over as manager of this facility."

"And how long have you been here?"

"A little over three years," Hanson answered.

"Okay, thank you for your time," Hutch rose and extended a card. "If you think of anything else, give me a call at that number."

"I'd be glad to." Hanson took the card and placed it in the Rolodex on his desk. He reached out for a handshake as Hutch prepared to leave, following him out.

As Hutch passed down the hallway back to the reception area he noticed a bulletin board. One brightly colored flyer caught his eye, the writing touting the benefits of full body massage and the price. "I thought you said you didn't allow moonlighting?" Hutch asked as he pointed to the flyer.

"That's not moonlighting. Any therapist that is also a certified masseuse can offer that service, and any patient here can take advantage of it as easily as choosing one out of the phone book. At least by using our staff here, they know they're getting someone knowledgeable about the physical issues that require treatment in the first place. But it's a massage they take to the home, not unauthorized physical therapy. There's a big difference." Hanson's tone was condescending.

"Yes, I'm sure there is. Thank you, if I have any further questions I'll get back to you," Hutch offered, pasting on his brightest smile to cover up his desire to knock the perfect teeth out of the perfect face in the perfect head sitting on top of the perfect body.

"Call first, if you don't mind," Hanson said.

Hutch turned with a hard look as Hanson continued. "Just to be sure I'm here, I wouldn't want to waste your time," Hanson finished.

"Right, thanks," Hutch replied as he left through the opulent entrance. He felt less dirty out in the smoggy street.

Hutch glanced around as he drove back to Metro, realizing he was only a mile or so away from the Flores home. He radioed his detour to the dispatcher and took the turns to the apartment off Magnolia.

An older woman answered his knock, with Flores's bright-eyed daughter peeking around her skirt. "Hutch," the child squealed with delight and launched herself into his arms.

"Hey there, pretty girl. How are you?" Hutch answered as the older woman smiled and stepped aside to let him enter.

"I'm fine. Are you going to make Daddy go to work with you?" she asked seriously.

"No, Daddy's got the day off. I just dropped by to say hi and to see you." Hutch's reply earned him a tight hug.

"Where is Daddy?" Hutch asked, looking around.

"Daddy's right here," Arturo answered, coming out of the kitchen, drying his hands on a towel. "Can I get you a beer?"

"Yeah, thanks. How are you?" Hutch asked as he placed Alicia gently down on her feet.

"Better than yesterday. Sorry about that. Amazing what a good night's sleep will do." Arturo handed Hutch the beer with a sheepish smile.

"Hey, don't give it a thought. How's Carolyn?" Hutch asked.

"She's better today, too. The department sent over a plant. That was nice, please tell everyone we appreciate it. I didn't expect anything, being the new kid on the block."

"You don't know Minnie, she'd never let that stop her. There'll be more stuff coming, too. She takes care of all that stuff like a pro."

"How's the case, anything new?" Arturo asked, changing the subject, while motioning Hutch to sit at the kitchen table.

"Actually, yeah. Starsky and I went and did some backtracking. You know what he picked up on?" Hutch asked, his excitement showing.

"Something to make us look bad, evidently," Arturo joked

"Well, he did get a different slant on things. He noticed that all the victims had some sort of physical problem. When we questioned Mr. Zychowicz, he said his wife was coming from having her hair done, remember?"

"Yeah," Arturo nodded as he took a drink of his beer.

"Well, she'd had a physical therapy appointment before that. When she didn't go to the rehab office for her treatment, she had someone come to the home to do massages for her."

"Means and opportunity, the motive is obvious," Arturo mused.

"Isn't it, just? I have a real hunger to take down the manager of that rehab center. I've got a gut feeling he's behind it, whether he actually did the deed himself or had it done. The Medical Examiner said Mrs. Zychowicz's neck was broken. This guy looked like he could press a couple hundred pounds with no problem. Snapping a little old lady's neck wouldn't have made him break a sweat."

"You thinking we should get in there with someone on the inside and see if he bites again?"

"Yeah, how's your back?" Hutch asked, smiling

"What?"

"Your back, that old college injury that flares up now and then...."

"I never...oh...yeah, you mean the one I got from wrestling, huh?"

"Yeah, maybe it needs a little treatment?" Hutch offered his beer up and Arturo touched the end of his own bottle to it in salute.

"Let's see what we can set up," Arturo said. "I'll be in tomorrow. Why don't we have Starsky sit in and we'll brainstorm together."

"You got it. Let me run, this was Starsky's first day in, he's probably ready to head home and we rode in together." Hutch stood, draining his beer and handing off the bottle.

"Thanks for coming by, I really appreciate it, and thanks for yesterday. I needed someplace to do that. I felt like I needed to hold it together for Carolyn. Dumb macho thing, huh? We cried together later, but right then, I...."

"No sweat, glad I could help. I wish it could have been more...."

"It was what I needed. You're a good man. I don't care what Dobey's said about you," Arturo teased to lighten the mood, and Hutch gave him a playful poke as he turned to leave.

"See you tomorrow," Hutch said as Arturo saw him to the door.

**********

Starsky was siting at their desk reading over some files when Hutch entered. He looked up when he heard the door open as if he'd been anticipating Hutch's return.

"Well, what'd you find out?" Starsky asked excitedly.

"I think you found the wedge we needed to break this thing wide open. I stopped off to check on Flores, he agreed. He'll be in tomorrow and wanted the three of us to set up a sting. See if we can get a plant in at the rehab center, someone that we can list at one of Highland Heights' fancy addresses. Then see if we get any takers. Greed is a powerful motivator. They've gotten away with everything so far, let's see if their ego will fuel a willingness to give it one more try."

"Want to give Dobey a head's-up before we leave?" Starsky asked.

"No, let's wait until we can present the whole thing. A concrete plan. I think we need to talk to one of the neighbors around where the other robberies took place and establish whether or not someone is willing to let us plant a decoy at their address. If we get no takers in the area, that will hinder things," Hutch said.

"Got any ideas from the people you interviewed?" Starsky asked.

"Not sure, I'll have to look through the notes again."

"What about Lotsoff?" Starsky asked, reaching for the piece of paper he'd been reading when Hutch came in. "He's a retired army officer, veteran of Korea and Vietnam, CID background. I bet he'd jump at the chance." Starsky looked up questioningly.

"Old cops never stop being cops, even military ones?"

"Especially military ones," Starsky returned with a laugh. "Let's get outta here for now, we'll give it a shot tomorrow." Starsky's look spoke of an entirely different thought for the rest of the evening.

"You got it." Hutch put the files away and the two men walked out to the car. "Tired?" Hutch asked as they drove away from Parker Center.

"A little, missed my nap," Starsky said. "But it's a good tired, you know?"

"You can take a power nap while I fix something for dinner, if you want to go to my place," Hutch offered hopefully.

"That sounds good, babe. I've got an idea or two that I'm sure will help me drift right off. Cook something you can put in the oven, and you can take a nap with me." Starsky's cheeks colored slightly. "I'm not that tired."

"Good," Hutch replied, feeling his own face redden and the heat echo in his groin.

**********

Arturo beat them in the next morning, thanks to a shower taking a little longer than they originally expected. Other than the slight smudges under his eyes to show the results of the recent strain, the young man looked rested.

The three pored over the interrogation reports of the neighbors in the Highland Heights region to see if Major Lotsoff was indeed the best candidate. All three agreed he was. With a concrete plan in place, they knocked on Dobey's door to present it to him.

The captain listened with pleased attention. He agreed to call the major and approach him with the idea to help set up a cover for someone to plant using his home address.

"Okay, who's going under and what will the cover story be?"

"I am," Starsky and Arturo answered at the same time.

Hutch choked on the sip of hot coffee he'd been taking and was coughing loudly as his eyes teared. Arturo reached out and patted Hutch's back as he stared open-mouthed at Starsky.

"These guys are smart, Captain. Physical therapy is their business. I'm sure Arturo could fake something and maybe pull it off, but all they'd have to do is take one look at me and they'd never question a thing. I know I can get Dr. Fielding to go along with the necessary paperwork on her end. It would be above any suspicion. They'd never suspect it wasn't real. We'd be foolish not to take advantage of the...advantage," Starsky reasoned.

Looking at Hutch who was still wheezing and clearing his throat, Starsky added, "Might as well make this work to the benefit of the department, they've paid out enough money in hospital bills and disability payments." His look was begging Hutch to understand.

"No way, no way in hell are you going under alone," Hutch sputtered.

"What am I, chopped liver?" Arturo asked. "Get Lotsoff to set the cover that Starsky's a son or nephew, and I can be his caretaker on site, or the butler, gardener, whatever hired help you want. It'd fit perfectly. And it would be a lot more believable than anyone falling for the idea of me being related to him. The hired help, they'd accept."

Hutch gave Flores a hard look and he had the good grace to cringe just a little under the force of it.

Dobey looked at the three men in slow succession. "Starsky, you go and talk to your doctor. If she thinks you can handle it and is willing to do the paperwork, I'll speak with Major Lotsoff."

"Captain!" Hutch exploded, having fully gotten his voice back.

Dobey waved him silent. "That's a big if, and if it's a go, we'll take it from there. Get on the phone, Starsky, see if you can reach her." Dobey sat back, tight-lipped until Starsky left the office.

As soon as the door was shut, Hutch exploded again, turning on Flores, "What the hell is the matter with you, are you crazy? Where do you get off agreeing with a hair-brained stunt like this?"

"Hutchinson, calm down," Dobey ordered.

"Captain, you don't know what you're asking, either of you. Starsky won't even take a shower in the locker room if anyone else is in there. You don't know the comments he's made about feeling like he's a Frankenstein with all the scars. Starsky's having a hard enough time coming to grips with what his body looks like after being almost cut in half, and you're going to have him flaunt it in front of strangers?"

"Hutchinson—"

Hutch leaned forward in his chair. "His first physical therapy stint was a disaster. It demoralized him to the point he was ready to give up and not try to come back at all, I just don't want to see that happen again. Captain, please?"

"Maybe this will be just what he needs to find closure in it," Flores offered softly.

"What?"

"Hutch, if he can turn it into something he considers a positive, maybe that will help him accept it being a permanent part of him now. It has a place in his life as a cop. I think, psychologically, it couldn't have come at a better time." Flores met Hutch's angry stare solidly before turning to Dobey. "What do you think, Captain?"

"I see your point, and, Hutch, when you cool off a little, I think you will, too. But until we know how Starsky's doctor is going to feel, this discussion may be a moot one."

Hutch ran both hands through his hair and over his face, "I don't fucking believe this," he muttered almost under his breath. "The board cleared him for light duty, I don't think undercover work meets that criteria. I mean, Starsky's back two days and—" any further comment was aborted when Starsky bounced back into the room. With his grin a mile wide, it left little doubt as to what Dr. Fielding had said. Hutch felt sick, his stomach churning wildly.

"Get me Major Lotsoff's number and we'll see what we can get going. The sooner the better." Dobey reached for the file that Flores handed over with the contacts' names, addresses, and phone numbers. He found the desired one and began to dial.

The bile Hutch had tried so hard to swallow, rose and wouldn't be ignored. With a hand against his stomach and a muttered, "Excuse me," he dashed from the office.

Hutch stood against the bathroom stall breathing slowly to try and quiet his churning stomach. He heard the soft knock on the stall door and glanced down, knowing he'd see blue Adidas peeking under the door. Resignedly, he turned the knob that allowed the door to swing open and Starsky stepped inside.

"You're not doing much to bolster my self-confidence, babe, if the thought of me working as a cop again drives you to this," Starsky motioned with a jut of his chin to the remains of Hutch's coffee and doughnut splattered in the toilet bowl. Hutch spat and reached over to flush the evidence away.

"Starsky...if Hanson is in any way behind any of this, taking him out won't be simple. Hell, he's built like a fucking truck. I don't think I could take him easily. I just don't like the idea that you'll be on the inside with little or no back-up."

"Hey, I'll have Flores, if he's been good enough to watch your back all these weeks and I've had to trust him to do that, can't you trust him to watch mine?" Starsky asked. "You've been telling me all this time how good he is, right?" Starsky reached out to rub across Hutch's shoulders.

Hutch wanted to relax into the touch, but couldn't quite manage it. He stood for a second with his eyes closed and swallowed several times, unsure if he was going to throw up again. He felt Starsky's hand on his face turn him. "If I didn't think I could handle it, I wouldn't have made the suggestion. Dr. Fielding thought it was a great idea, but Hutch, your opinion is the one that matters to me most. I need to know you still believe in me."

Hutch took in a deep breath and let it out, mustering up the courage to open his eyes and look at his lover. "It isn't about not believing in you, it's about loving you so much I can't get past the fear."

"I know. After you got that plague, every time anyone sneezed around you my heart would start the anvil chorus. What did you tell me?"

Hutch smiled at the memory. "Not to treat me like the boy in the bubble. Okay, I get the message. I'll try, that's all I can promise."

"That's all I can ask." Starsky smiled back. "Come on, let's go see what the major has to say about our plan."

They walked back into Dobey's office just as the large man was hanging up the phone. "Major Lotsoff was all for the idea. He said he'd clear his calendar today and tomorrow for us to come by and create our cover story, then we'll get the information to Dr. Fielding's office so the secretary there can call for the PT appointment. Let Starsky go and get established at the rehab center, then see if he gets approached to use some of the in-home services once they see the address. Talk up your uncle's money, art collection, whatever it is. If we can create a convincing trail of temptations to substantiate and get Flores established in the house as well, we'll see what bites our fish take at the bait. Let's get to work, gentlemen." Dobey sat back and the three men slowly filed out the door.

"Hutchinson, I need to see you for another minute, please," Dobey intoned without looking up.

Starsky and Hutch met glances, then Hutch turned around as Starsky pulled the door shut after himself.

"Yes sir?" Hutch asked.

"Sit down, son."

Hutch sat, the churning in his stomach starting again with a vengeance.

"I know you and Starsky have been partners a long time. You've had some rough times, both of you. This last go round was the toughest. But as your commander I sometimes have some tough decisions to make also."

"You're not thinking of splitting us up are you, Captain? I'm sorry about that outburst, I...just was nervous about Starsky getting in over is head too soon, but obviously it's okay or Dr. Fielding wouldn't have given the go ahead. I mean, she's been...."

"Hutch...I'm not planning on splitting you up unless I see there is more of a problem like I did this morning, after Starsky gets completely cleared. I think we both have a good feeling that he will be, and it won't be much longer. I know he'll have to pass a full physical and psychological review, and once that's done, he's cleared, as far as I'm concerned. I'm just asking if you're okay with it? I'd like to assign Flores to ride along with you for, say, another week or so to help indoctrinate him to the department, then I'd like your recommendation about who to pair him with permanently. The two openings are with Tickle and Thorpe, just be thinking which one would be the best match. And, Hutch...give your partners, both of them, some credit. They're professionals, the same as you. Each of you has different strengths and weaknesses, but you're equals in this department. Flores and Starsky were on the same page this morning, their logic was rock solid. You let your emotions knock you off kilter. We both know there isn't any place for that out on the streets, don't we?"

"Yes, sir," Hutch answered seriously.

"I've buried a partner," Dobey continued softly. "I thought it would kill me. I loved Elmo as much as you love Starsky. Our families took vacations together; our wives were as close as sisters. When he died, I spent the better part of an hour holding his dead body. I wouldn't let anyone touch him. "I sat there in that meat plant, in a pool of blood—Elmo's blood—and for the life of me I couldn't imagine why my heart was still beating if his wasn't. It seemed impossible, but that's what went down. I lived and he didn't. There isn't any kind of hurt that comes close to that, unless it's maybe burying a child. You were lucky and got a second chance... I'm glad. I saw myself every time I looked in your eyes at the hospital. I'd have done anything in my power to spare you the pain I felt in losing Elmo. Starsky's healing. It shows. He's getting stronger every day. I'm suggesting that you take some time and look to see where your wounds are, Hutch. You've got some healing yet to do, too. It's time, that's all I'm gonna say. Give yourself the time. Talk to somebody if you need to, whatever it takes." Dobey looked at Hutch and let his face break into a lopsided smile. "Now get out there and let's catch this son-of-a-bitch who thinks he's gonna get away with it one more time."

"Yes, sir. We'll get him." Hutch stood and took a step away before turning back. "I promised Mr. Zychowicz we'd get the ones responsible for killing his best friend. I meant it."

Hutch closed the door behind him as he walked out of Dobey's office and approached his desk where Starsky and Flores were brainstorming. All conversation stopped when he arrived and he cleared his throat, feeling self-conscious.

"Everything okay?" Flores asked, while Starsky searched Hutch's face, seeking his own answer that way, words unnecessary.

"Yeah, he...ah, just needed to remind me about a few details I needed to take care of personally." Hutch's gaze left Flores to settle on Starsky. Dobey's words—"I buried a partner"—a cold echo in his heart. Hutch let his eyes caress Starsky as he wished his hands were free to do and let that contact warm him.

"Okay, we're going to go to Lotsoff's place and set the cover, meet the house staff and get all their IDs run once more just in case. We don't want any surprises," Flores started.

"Then we'll swing by Dr. Fielding's office to pick up the referral slip and have the office set up the initial appointment. Hopefully they can get me in before the end of the week," Starsky's face was flushed with excitement.

"What are you going to do?" Flores asked Hutch.

"I've got a couple of errands to run, then I'll return the ledger stuff we took from the cleaners and, by that time, I'll head home." Hutch patted Flores on the back as he slid past the back of his chair. "Give Starsky a lift to my place and he can pick up his car and let me know what went down with the major, and we'll co-ordinate the PT stuff." Hutch looked up with eyebrows raised in question, "Okay?"

"Yeah, sure. Cook something, I'm broke," Starsky answered with a smile that didn't quite meet his eyes, as he looked back at Hutch with concern before tossing him the Torino's keys.

"What's new?" Hutch fired off with a wave of his hand as he left the squadroom.

Hutch drove directly to the cleaners and left the ledger and personnel files with the employee at the desk who reluctantly signed to receive them. Then, he got back in the car and drove down to the pier near his home. He sat on the hood of the car and watched the water. Small sailboats and a few shrimp trawlers winked at him amidst the sparkles of the late afternoon sun. He closed his eyes and soaked in the smells and sounds, shutting out the freeway traffic in the distance, and concentrated on the warmth of the sun on his face. He let his mind replay Dobey's words to him and realized he had created a door in his mind where he had locked all his fear and anger of the past months since Starsky's near fatal shooting. "You're a fucking time-bomb, Hutchinson, and Dobey knows it. Get your shit together. You're going to have to open that door sooner or later," he admonished himself. "If it comes open by itself...shit, what a mess." He leaned back to stretch out, his head and shoulders resting on the windshield, letting his mind actually picture the door at the end of a long corridor that had haunted his dreams. Feeling his heartbeat speed up he pictured his hand reaching to turn the knob.

"I thought I'd find you here."

The sound startled him and he jumped, actually reaching to draw his gun.

"Whoa, don't shoot," Starsky teased as he stilled Hutch's right hand.

"Damn, make some noise, will ya? You scared the hell out of me."

"Sorry. Where were you?"

"I went to Century Cleaners—"

"No, I mean in your head. When Arturo dropped me off and I walked up you never heard me," Starsky interrupted, and he hoisted himself to sit on the hood next to Hutch.

"Just thinking...." Hutch hedged, unsure if he had his feelings sorted out enough to share them.

"About something Dobey said?"

"Sort of," Hutch answered

"Want to talk about it?"

Silence stretched out for much longer than usual before Hutch finally spoke, "Not here, and not right now. I'll tell you when, okay?"

"Okay, if you're gonna be all right until you can spill it. Don't wait too long, babe. I can see it wearing on you. I suspect Dobey did, too, am I right?" Starsky pressed.

"Aren't you always," Hutch replied irritably, then sighed and shook his head. "I'm sorry. I had no reason to snap. Let's go, I'll throw something together for dinner."

Starsky pulled the Torino in behind Hutch's car in front of Venice Place and both men walked up the stairs. Divesting jackets and guns just inside the door, Starsky's arm stopped Hutch's move toward the kitchen and Hutch felt arms slide around him to pull their bodies close for a hug. He wrapped his arms around Starsky and held him tightly, relaxing into the warm hard body. Hutch took in a deep breath and let it out, feeling a modicum of peace accompany it.

"Think we could just stay like this for a month or so until I can get my head on straight?" Hutch asked, his voice sounding tired even to his own ears.

"I'll stay like this as long as you need me to, babe." Starsky leaned tighter into the embrace and turned his face to kiss Hutch's neck. "How can I help you with your head? Am I pushing too hard, trying to take this too fast between us? You having second thoughts?"

"Hell, no, that's not it at all. Where did that come from?" Hutch asked, surprised. "I love you, I love us being together. There isn't any doubt for me on that count at all. I...I think I just need to take a little time to stop and process some stuff, you know? I didn't deal with a lot of what was going down when you got shot at the time it happened. There hasn't been any time since...I just stuffed it. I guess that's where I'm at now. There isn't any more room left to stuff anything else. That's what Dobey was talking to me about, telling me he—" Hutch pulled back and shoved both hands in his pockets and moved to look out into the greenhouse.

Starsky walked slowly up behind him wrapping his arms around him again. "Telling you what?" Starsky pressed.

"Telling me about his partner, Elmo. I guess he was trying to let me know he understood how I was feeling at the time, since he'd lost a partner." Hutch turned to face Starsky. "But I don't care how he felt...I don't care about it now, I didn't care about it then. I was going to get who did it, no matter what. It was the only thing I could do. Do you understand?" Hutch had a crushing grip on Starsky's biceps. "I didn't stop it, I couldn't help you heal, couldn't take your pain away. But I sure could put the hurt on the ones who caused it." Hutch could feel himself start to shake, and saw the fear rising in his lover's blue eyes. He took notice of the bruising grip he held Starsky in and released him, rubbing over the flesh where his hands had gripped so tightly. "I'm sorry, I'm—" Hutch mumbled and tried to turn away again, but Starsky stopped him.

"It's okay, everything's okay now, you can let it go. So you got a little crazy. So did I when I was looking for Callendar, and again when you were trapped in that canyon under your car. I understand. But it's over now. We beat it, just like all the other times. You can let it go." Starsky's arms pulled him close and steered Hutch's head down onto his shoulder, rubbing soothing circles over Hutch's back. "It was tough on both of us, but what we've got now, not only makes it worth it, but it makes it disappear. All the bad, floating away like the smog when the Santa Ana's are blowing. It's all gone, out into the desert where it doesn't matter." Starsky kissed his neck again and nipped playfully at him. "You hearing me? You better be paying attention, ‘cause I'm serious here."

Hutch leaned back with a short laugh. "Starsky, you don't have a serious bone in your body." Hutch gazed down into Starsky's face and fell in love all over again. He cupped Starsky's face with his hands and kissed him, softly, reverently, letting all the tender love he felt for this man to be communicated in the kiss. The gentle passion was recognized for what it was—thanksgiving—and Starsky returned it in kind.

The sound of Starsky's stomach growling loudly broke the kiss and caused both men to laugh again. "I hear you, I'll start dinner." Hutch kissed Starsky again quickly and headed to the kitchen. His rummaging in the refrigerator was cut short when the phone rang.

"Hutchinson...." Hutch turned to mouth "Flores" at Starsky's questioning look. With a nod of understanding Starsky took over the hunt for something edible in the fridge, while Hutch went to a yellow legal pad resting on the kitchen counter. He wrote as Flores talked.

Starsky brought two plates holding sandwiches to the table and made a second trip with a hastily thrown together salad in a large bowl balanced precariously between two bottles of beer.

"Okay, thanks, I've got it. Good job. We'll see you tomorrow. Bye." Hutch pushed the pad aside and rescued one of the beer bottles. "Let's eat and we'll talk about the case after, okay?" Hutch asked.

"Sure. Sorry, there's no tomatoes for the sandwiches, I used them all in the salad. I figured we could use ketchup with the bread better than over the lettuce."

"No contest," Hutch answered with a shudder as both men began to eat.

Once the food was eagerly consumed, Hutch pushed the dishes out of the way, got each of them another beer, and grabbed his yellow pad with the notes from his phone conversation.

"Okay, here's the cover...you are Lotsoff's nephew. Born and raised in New York, your family is still back there, so that part's easy. The only son of his only sister and a career military man, as well. You have just come back stateside after being wounded in Southeast Asia. You, being part of the lingering forces still in Cambodia. You're here for recuperation and debriefing, that will allow for the comings and goings of other people at the household. So Flores will be there as your driver to and from the PT, and largely the visible contact during the day all the time you're there. I'll be there whenever I can, dressed in an army uniform, as well as Lizzie, when Flores needs a break. She'll be under as military also. I don't think we could get in another member of the household staff without raising red flags. I'll try to work it that I'm the one who comes after dinner and spends the night." Hutch looked up at the sound of Starsky's snicker.

"That sounds like an easy thing to carry on a general conversation about. The New York stuff won't be any sweat at all, and unless somebody came from the Ho Chi Mihn Trail really recently, I can fake that from my tour just before the Tet Offensive," Starsky reasoned with a nod.

"Did you get the referral from Dr. Fielding?"

"Yeah, the office set me up for a preliminary assessment appointment this Wednesday. So I can get there maybe twice this week."

"Do you know who you'll be seeing when you go?" Hutch asked warily.

Starsky fished a piece of folded up paper out of his jeans. "Derek Hanson, he's the main physical therapist. I guess he has to do the initial assessments to set up the program."

"Probably. Watch yourself. He's the goon I met when I went by. I don't like him," Hutch replied tersely.

"You don't have to. If he's not involved, he's got nothing to worry about, and if he is, he'll take the fall for it." Starsky leaned back in the chair, balancing it slightly on the back legs as he looked at Hutch and let a slow sly smile curve his lips.

"What?" Hutch asked, looking up and doing a double take at Starsky's expression.

"Just trying to imagine how great you're gonna look in uniform."

**********

The hubbub of activity in the squadroom centered around the too-small desk as the participants each got their schedule for the next three days. Lizzie was wearing the military uniform that had been delivered earlier that morning. She'd insisted on trying it on to be sure it fit properly. Hutch had given his a cursory glance and nodded in satisfaction that the size was fine. He seemed to be working hardest at keeping the flush off his face every time he saw Starsky steal a glance at the uniform hanging on the file cabinet and innocently run his tongue across his bottom lip.

Dobey leaned back from the conferring officers and rubbed his hands together in anticipation. "Okay, let's get going. Starsky, you start looking more like an invalid; Flores, you go pretend to be a home boy; and, Hutchinson, go get a haircut, then introduce Lizzie to the major. Let's get this thing started."

Hutch made a supreme effort not to look at his lover as he reached for the uniform. When he did look up it was to whisper, "Be careful," in Starsky's direction, and, "Stay close," to Arturo.

Starsky patted Hutch on the back as they left. "No sweat, I'll see you at the major's when we're done."

Starsky and Flores went to the police garage and checked out the Lincoln Towncar that was part of their cover, and drove to the San Marcos Rehab Center.

Arturo parked the car, and with a slightly irritated set to his jaw, got out of the driver's side and went around to open the back door of the large car for Starsky. Starsky held out his hand and allowed himself to be stiffly helped from the car, moving slowly and appearing to be in pain. Arturo looked intently for only a second before hiding his smile. "You're good," he mumbled as he shut the door.

"The memory's not so far removed," Starsky answered grimly.

Starsky walked slowly to the receptionist, straightening with a wince when he got to the desk. He rested his file of medical records on the ledge and announced, "Captain David Nussbaum, I'm here for an initial evaluation appointment with Mr. Hanson."

"Yes, sir. If you'll fill out this first-visit questionnaire someone will be right with you." The receptionist offered the clipboard with a smile.

Starsky took the proffered item and went to sit next to Flores while he filled out the pages. Scrawling, "See medical records–Department of the Army" on much of the questionnaire. Starsky signed the forms and started to rise when unobtrusive pressure against his elbow caught his attention, and he passed the clipboard to Arturo for him to return it to the receptionist.

Starsky watched her under the guise of flipping through a magazine and smiled to himself when he noted that she didn't get past the cover page with his address on it before getting up to deliver the clipboard into the office marked, "Administration". Before Arturo had time to get comfortable in the chair, the door to the main office opened and a largely muscled man in casual clothes and a white lab coat stepped out and approached Starsky.

"Captain?" Hanson looked from Starsky to Arturo and back.

Starsky put down his magazine and, staying seated, extended his hand. "Yes."

"I'm Derek Hanson, the manager and lead physical therapist here. I'll be doing your initial evaluation and get you set up with a program to get you back on your feet. If you'd come with me, please?" Hanson turned and walked toward the double doors that led inside the clinic.

With obvious effort, Starsky stood slowly. Arturo reached for his arm to help steady him and Starsky leaned heavily on it. Hanson turned at the doors and watched as they approached, his gaze taking in Starsky's gait and Arturo's level of support.

"I've gotten your medical records and paperwork from Dr. Fielding. She also had your operative report transcribed, but the top of the paper was cut off in the copy machine. What hospital did you have your initial surgery in?"

"A military field hospital in Cambodia, then I was airlifted to Guam. When I was released there, I was flown to my home in New York."

"Yes, I see that's your home address. It's very close to Columbia, a very prestigious hospital. Why are you in Southern California?" Hanson asked, as he indicated Starsky should sit on the table in the cubicle they just entered.

"My uncle lives here and my next duty assignment will be as an instructor with the War College at Fort Ord," Starsky answered as he accepted Arturo's help up on the table, not using his right arm to help himself at all.

Hanson looked through the pages without further comment, then looked up again as if he were still waiting for an answer to his original question.

"I haven't lived at home since I joined the army. Ever try to convalesce around a Jewish mother?" Starsky asked ruefully. "I was only too happy to take advantage of my uncle's offer to come here."

Hanson nodded, as if that was an answer after all, and placed the chart on the shiny chrome counter. "Well, let's see what we can do for you. Remove your shirt, please." Hanson went to the sink and washed his hands as Starsky began unbuttoning his shirt. He could feel his face heating up in embarrassment and hated that he couldn't ‘act' it away. Arturo stepped forward and eased the shirt all the way off his arms and Starsky refused to meet his eyes, not wanting to know what he'd see reflected there.

"Well, I guess the army doesn't issue bullet-proof vests," Hanson remarked, as he looked at Starsky's torso then leaned past him to look at his back.

"When the enemy is using armor-piercing projectiles, what's the point?" Starsky answered sharply.

"How much mobility do you have in your left arm?" Hanson asked as he slowly raised Starsky's left arm in an arc over his head.

"Almost normal, that's not the one that bothers me," Starsky said.

"And the right?" Hanson asked as he moved that arm in the same manner.

"Not much," Starsky hissed and resisted the movement about halfway up. When Hanson released his arm gently, Starsky folded it against his body and held it protectively there with his left hand.

"Are you right handed?"

"No."

"Good...and bad," Hanson replied. "Good that you've had less inconvenience up to this point, bad, because if you were, you would have been forced to use it more and you might have developed more mobility by now than you have." Hanson leaned over to look at Starsky's back again. "Lots of adhesions here at the exit points. The muscles that were torn in the bullets' path out are stuck to each other. That's probably one of the biggest issues. We'll work on it. How's your movement in general? Can you walk, oh, say...up a flight of stairs without getting winded or being in pain?"

"No, walking from one end of my uncle's house to the other makes me break out in a sweat." Starsky gave a short laugh and looked at Flores for the first time since removing his shirt. "Of course, that's a pretty fair distance. If the dog died in there it'd be two weeks before anyone found him."

"Not with how often Maria vacuums," Arturo answered, his uncharacteristic accent very thick. "He'd still be warm."

"Well, let me tell you what I think we can do for you here. I'd like to set up a program where you come in three times a week. We'll do some baseline measurements today, test the muscle strength in both arms and both legs, see what you can lift without pain, and I'll feel what limits in range of motion you have due to the scar tissue. We'll need to try and break some of that up over the next few days, and that's going to make you pretty sore. But no pain, no gain. You're a military man, I'm sure you can appreciate that philosophy. Bring a bathing suit with you for the next visit so you can get in the whirlpool, and invest in a half dozen gel packs that you can keep in the freezer. You'll need to bring them with you in an ice chest so you can put them on when we're done here and keep the swelling down immediately, not wait to ice down until you get back home. It will help keep the soreness down to a minimum." Hanson stepped back and clapped his hands together loudly. "Ready to get started?" Hanson asked.

"I can hardly wait," Starsky replied, the trepidation in his voice completely real.

"Okay, let me go get one of my therapy assistants and they'll get the baseline for me and I'll come back after that and give your muscles a once over." Hanson turned to Arturo, "You can wait out in the lobby if you want...."

"That's okay, I'll stay. The major told me—"

"Fine, just stay out of the way," Hanson said with irritation.

Starsky fought the urge to put his shirt back on and cover himself, and was immensely grateful when Arturo opened one of the cabinets under the sink and pulled out a hospital gown and held it open for Starsky to slip in his arms. "Thanks," he said softly

"I'm cold and I'm dressed, you must be freezing," Flores answered easily

"Yeah, plus no sense in scaring anybody," Starsky replied dryly.

Arturo looked up and met his gaze squarely. "You're not scary looking."

"Yeah, right. I've looked in the mirror."

"It's only scary to you because you remember the horror of what it felt like happening. If I didn't know they were there, I'd probably not notice them at all, as hairy as you are." Arturo spoke softly, his accent gone.

"Take a look at my back, amigo. If I grew enough hair to cover that up, I'd be an ape, and keep the accent in case anyone's close enough to listen and we don't know it."

Arturo walked to the side of the table and lifted away the patient gown for a few seconds then let it drop. He rested a warm hand on Starsky's shoulder. "No wonder your partner is so glad you're alive," he whispered. "He was with you at the time, right?"

"Yeah, he was on the other side of the car. When they came around and opened fire I had nowhere to hide. He warned me, saw it coming before I did, but I didn't even have time to draw my gun."

"Have you and he talked about it?" Arturo asked.

"What do you mean? About the shooting? Yeah, why...did Hutch tell you a different version?"

"No, he never mentioned it at all. There's just some baggage there, that's all. Little things," Arturo offered still speaking softly and with no accent.

"Like what?"

"Like he won't park the car in the garage, no matter how hot as hell it'll be when we get into it in the middle of the day. Looks at every uniform that doesn't smile and speak to him by name, like he's an imposter that's going to pull a knife or something. He's pretty wired most of the time. It's a lot better than it was when we first got together. I've heard from some of the others at the department that it was even worse than that before I came. I nagged him into going to the gym once in a while to wrestle, thinking he needed some kind of stress outlet or he was going to implode. It's been better since you guys came back from vacation, wherever it was you went."

"The beach, a friend loaned us a place. Hutch loves the water."

"Yeah, well, maybe when this case is done, if we don't jump into something else right away, you can get him to go off again for a few days. It did him a world of good, but I think there's still some stuff he'd benefit by talking over. If not with you, then with somebody, maybe a counselor or something. He's not as together as he looks, is my impression. I'd hate to see him decompress at the wrong time." Arturo gave a short laugh. "That's my two dollars and a degree in psychology's opinion, for what it's worth."

Starsky smiled, finally understanding why Hutch liked the man standing in front of him, and he was able to put to rest his earlier feelings of jealousy and resentment. "It's worth a lot and I appreciate it. I'm glad Hutch has had you to watch his back while I couldn't."

"Yeah, well, his back's okay, but I think his head bears a little watching for a while yet."

Any further conversation was aborted when an Amazonian woman walked in and Arturo went to sit, slouched in the nearby chair. She had dark honey blonde hair, pulled back in a braid that hung almost to her shoulder blades. She had to be over six feet tall, solidly built, no fat at all, just big.

"Good morning, my name is Andrea Corbett, I'm one of the PT technicians here. I'll be taking the baseline measurements for Mr. Hanson." She proceeded to set down a small carrying case and pulled out several pieces of equipment, spreading them out on the padded table next to Starsky. She fiddled with the settings on one, then pointed the handgrip end to Starsky's right hand. "Grip this as tightly as you can and hold it."

She reset the machine and repeated the process two more times before switching to the left. After each attempt she made a notation of the numbers in his chart. She went efficiently through the assessment, measuring carefully the angles at which Starsky could move each arm at the elbow and shoulder. Then she handed him a wooden dowel with weights on each end and asked that he hold it away from his body. She gradually added weight to the bar. "Tell me when it becomes too heavy to hold without pain."

Starsky answered legitimately with his left arm, somewhat disgruntled that his chest muscles began to pull painfully at thirty-five pounds. He begged off at twelve pounds on his right side feeling he could have gone higher, maybe not up to the thirty-five of his better arm, but higher, and vowed he'd try it sometime, when no one was looking, to satisfy himself.

"Okay, if you'll follow me, I want you to try a few minutes on the treadmill and see what we get your heart rate up to." She walked out of the cubicle and stood beside the nearest treadmill, adjusting the setting and zeroing the counter.

Starsky looked at the machine like it was covered with snakes. It brought back all the agonizing hours of therapy at the other center where he had felt so discouraged, before Hutch had taken over his rehab and gotten him to Dr. Fielding.

"Step on and I'll start the belt. We'll start off slowly, I'll adjust the incline if you can tolerate it. I'd like to see your heart rate at about 140. You tell me if you get tired or uncomfortable before we get there."

Starsky stepped slowly on the machine, his mind working frantically about how best to fake this part. He all too vividly remembered how miserable his accounting had been the last time he was on one of these, but he and Hutch had come so far. He knew he could fake the pain, but not the sweating and shakes that had once accompanied his attempts. He glanced over at Arturo and saw the man nod fractionally and Starsky relaxed a little.

"Stop before you feel a big cramp like the last time. Yes?" Arturo suggested.

Are you sure your degree isn't in mind reading instead of psychology? Starsky thought, grateful for the out he needed.

He walked for almost six minutes and his heart rate had only gotten above 80. He was getting bored, and Annie Atlas was looking at him quizzically as she increased the incline a second time. Starsky intentionally increased his respiratory rate and coughed at intervals, wiping a hand across his forehead as if it were sweaty, then stumbled gripping his side. Arturo came out of his chair like a shot and actually reached Starsky to break his fall before the therapist two feet away could drop her chart and reach for her patient.

"Let's get him back into the room where he started and he can lie down for a few minutes and rest," Andrea said, as she helped support Starsky on one side while Arturo half carried him on the other.

"Would you like a drink of water, Captain?" Andrea asked once Starsky was seated.

"Yes, please," Starsky answered shakily.

Drinking the offered water he handed back the cup, still guarding his side. "I think I need to lie down." Starsky looked toward Arturo who was already stepping forward to raise his legs and support his neck as he eased down on the table.

"I'll go over your chart with Mr. Hanson, and you rest. He'll be in to talk with you again in a few minutes. Please press the button on the wall if you need anything," she instructed as she left, closing the door softly.

Arturo walked to the head of the table and whispered almost silently. "You really are okay, right?"

"Yeah, thanks for the idea of the cramp, I was wondering how the hell I was going to fake a heart rate of 140," Starsky replied sotto voce .

"It was my own sense of self-preservation. I didn't want Hutch to kill me when I took you back to the major's looking like a limp dishrag." Arturo patted his shoulder and went to sit in the chair he had occupied earlier.

A few moments later there was a soft knock on the door and Mr. Hanson entered. "How are you doing?" he asked. "Had a little problem on the treadmill, I understand. Any shortness of breath in addition to the cramp?"

"Yeah, that kicks in pretty early. There was a lot of damage to the right lung they tell me, plus I had a wound infection and pneumonia as a complication after surgery."

"Not to mention a cardiac arrest, I believe I read in Dr. Fielding's notes," Hanson replied.

Arturo's head snapped up at hearing that. I guess Hutch never did talk about it, Starsky mused.

"Okay, here's what I'm going to do now. I am going to check range of motion like we did earlier with Andrea and her calipers, only I'm going to be palpating along the muscle and connective tissues that allow for each particular movement. I want to feel where the tightness is, then we can target exercises and therapies that will loosen what's tight and tighten up what's loose. Our body moves very logically in a system of pulleys," Hanson explained. "If one is too tight things don't move well, if another affecting that same joint is weak and loose, then that compromises movement even more. I'll find out just what we need to fix. I can promise you the best ultimate outcome that way...but I can't promise that you'll enjoy it." Hanson said, a smirk on his face as he turned from where he had washed his hands at the sink. "Try to relax as much as you can."

Fuck, why do they all say that just before it hurts like hell? Starsky took in a deep breath and let it out slowly as Hanson's hands began manipulating his legs. After a minute or two Hanson rested Starsky's leg down on the bed. "There's a little loss of muscle tone, probably from all the weeks you spent in bed, but that will come back nicely. It is already, I'm sure you've noticed that. Your abdomen is soft, no sign of any incisional hernias to cause problems later. I'll start with your better arm first," Hanson said as he began putting stress on each joint in Starsky's left arm.

With each pull and stretch, Hanson's fingers traced along lines of muscle and tendon, pushing and testing strength and flexibility. Starsky's chest muscles were beginning to protest and he didn't have to fake the winces at all. By the time Hanson was finished, had made the notes in the chart and began to repeat the process on Starsky's right arm, he was sweating for real. The fingers probing in Starsky's shoulder and chest were inciting sharp, hot pains that took his breath away. The last pull with Starsky's arm stretched tightly over his head and Hanson's fingers digging painfully in his armpit had produced a groan and swallowed curse. Arturo stood and moved closer to the bed, his stance every bit that of a Latino street fighter.

Hanson looked up briefly and backed off. "Turn over on your stomach, please, Captain, we're almost finished."

Starsky took a couple of breaths and then shakily pushed up to his elbow on the right side to turn. His muscles were trembling and the effort it took to turn was totally natural. Arturo helped release the binding of the patient gown and sent him a look that said clearly he'd put an end to this right now if Starsky gave the nod. With an almost undecipherable shake of his head, Starsky settled on his stomach and Arturo moved back to the chair.

Mr. Hanson opened Starsky's gown and ran his hands along the ridges of the muscles that had been torn by the large exit holes. Starsky clamped his jaw together tightly hating the feel of the man's hands on him. Hanson took his large hands and, placing both thumbs along the edge of Starsky spine, pressed deeply into the damaged muscles and stretched them laterally toward his ribs. Starsky could feel a sickening crackle of tiny, scarred fibers giving way with the pressure. The searing pain increased with each pass of his strong hands. Starsky held a white-knuckle grip on the side of the table and bit his lip until he could take no more and he groaned, "Stop... damn it."

"Almost done, just a few more and—"

"I said, stop!" Starsky tried turning out of the grip of those powerful hands but was ineffective in doing so. Another pass of those massive hands stabbed him with white-hot pain. He groaned again, and then the hands were gone. Starsky took a relieved breath before he turned his head to see that Hanson was pushing himself up off the floor by the wall where Arturo stood menacingly, blocking his path back to where Starsky lay on the exam table.

"There's a lot of scar tissue that needs to be broken up, this is the only way to do it. I told you it wouldn't be comfortable. I'm trying to help you, Captain. It hurts, that can't be helped. But you need to keep your boy in check. I'm not going to fight you and him, too, is that clear?"

"Let's not try and do it all at one time then, okay?" Starsky grunted as he pushed himself to sit on the edge of the table. "Arturo, I'm okay, thank you, but I'm fine." Starsky looked at the still red-faced therapist. "I think this has been enough for today." Starsky terminated the session, letting the patient gown fall off his shoulders. Arturo was immediately preparing to help him into his own shirt.

"That's fine, you should make an appointment for day after tomorrow, give your muscles a day in between to rest. We'll see you Friday. Ice down everything that's sore today and use heat tomorrow. Any questions?"

Starsky gave a short laugh, "Where the hell will I get that much ice?" He motioned to Arturo and the two men left the cubicle and walked out to the reception area. After securing an appointment for Friday morning at ten o'clock, they walked to the car. Arturo opened the rear passenger door and helped Starsky ease to the seat. The pretence of the help out of the car earlier, evaporated into a real need for the help now. Starsky was in real pain and he knew it showed.

As they drove away, Starsky leaned heavily against the back door and the corner of the plush seat as he drew a shaking hand across his sweaty upper lip. "Pull in a drive-thru. I need to get something."

"You're hungry?" Arturo asked incredulously.

"Hell, no! I need something to take a pill with. That bastard almost killed me and if I go back to the major's like this Hutch will kill both of us, then come after Hanson." Starsky smiled at the weak joke and looking at Arturo's concerned expression suspected the younger man thought he was serious. "Root beer, light on the ice," Starsky said when they pulled to the window.

Arturo paid for the soda, waving Starsky's money away as he handed him the large cup. Starsky drank thirstily as he fumbled a small aspirin tin from his pocket and took out two pills. Tossing them in his mouth he swallowed more soda.

"I hope that was something stronger than aspirin," Arturo offered, turning a dubious look at Starsky when the traffic allowed.

"Yeah, it was. I probably shouldn't have taken two. If I'm falling asleep during conversation, Hutch will pick up on that and it'll be just as bad. I may need you to run block for me."

"How?"

"Keep him busy and let me go lay down for an hour. If I can get still and ice everything down like he said, I'll be okay. He really did seem to know what he was doing, as much as I hate to admit it. He didn't tell me anything the other therapists that I went to before didn't. He's just a little heavier handed."

"Maybe that's the point?" Arturo offered.

"Huh?" Starsky asked, wondering if the pills were hitting sooner than usual and he was a little fuzzy.

"If you're hurting, what would you or your family do? Call back to the place and complain?"

"Yeah, so?" Starsky asked, still not sure he followed.

"So what might Hanson offer? Something to make you feel better? A masseuse to come to the house maybe?"

"Hmmm, could be. Let me sleep on it for a while. You and Blondie talk, and we'll put in a call just before they close this afternoon and see what they offer. Good idea." Starsky closed his eyes and secured the large drink cup between his legs, the weight of holding even that causing his arm to shake. Shit, I hurt! God, please don't let Hutch suspect, he's got enough going on.

Starsky was very relieved when they got to the major's house that Hutch wasn't there. Lizzie was waiting, engaged in an animated conversation with the major in his study when Arturo and Starsky let themselves in the kitchen door coming from the garage entrance and following the voices.

"How did it go?" Lizzie started, then flashing a concerned look from Starsky to Arturo and back she added, "I'm afraid to ask, you look like hell, Starsky."

"Then don't...I'm going to go sack out for a little while. Wake me when Hutch gets here will ya? Flores can fill you in. What room am I using, Major?"

"Guest suite just past the library. You sure you're okay? Do you need to call someone to check you out?" Lotsoff asked, his expression echoing Lizzie's.

"I'll be fine once I can lay down for a few minutes. Do you have any ice I can put in a plastic bag?" Starsky asked.

"Go lie down, I'll bring it," Arturo steered Starsky toward the hallway.

The hall looked ten miles long as Starsky plodded down it, looking for the room past the library. The glance in the first room he came to took his breath away. A huge room with a wall of windows that faced the ocean and a flagstone fireplace in the corner brought back instant memories of the weekend at the beach when Hutch had found him. The weekend that had changed everything between them. The next room was cool and quiet. A large cherry four-poster bed called invitingly and he rolled into it, hesitating only long enough to toe-off his shoes.

The feel of a hand on his chest awakened him and he blinked up to see Arturo with several towel wrapped bags of ice. "I'll go and get some of those gel things like Hanson said you needed. I guess he wasn't kidding."

"No, my friend, he was definitely not kidding." Starsky readjusted the ice to where his screaming muscles protested the most. "Hutch isn't back yet, is he?"

"No, I'm just briefing Lizzie and the major," Arturo answered.

"Good...wake me...." Starsky slurred, his eyelids drooping again.

"I will." Arturo left, closing the door softly and that's the last thing Starsky heard.

**********

Hutch softly opened the guestroom door and looked in. Starsky lay sprawled across the bed at an angle with the corner of the bedspread pulled up over his shoulder. He looked for all the world to Hutch, at that moment, like a gypsy prince. Dark curls surrounded by dark maroon and gold brocade. He closed the door quietly behind him and approached the bed. Hutch gently laced his fingers into Starsky's lax ones, frowning as the coolness of them registered.

"Starsk," Hutch called softly to no response. His concern escalated. Starsky was a hard sleeper, but not in the middle of the day in a strange bed, and not while he was undercover.

"Starsky," Hutch called a bit louder, and two sleepy blue eyes opened and looked at him blankly. A soft smile slightly curved Starsky's lips as his eyes drifted closed again only to snap open almost immediately

"Hutch, you're here," Starsky slurred, blinking hard and giving his head a slight shake to wake up. "How long have you been here? What time is it?" Starsky turned over slightly and winced, then coughed slightly to hide it.

Hutch pounced on the gesture with both feet. "I've been here almost an hour. Lizzie and Arturo insisted on a bullshit gabfest, now I see why. What did you take, and why?"

"What? I don't know what you're talking about. Lizzie and Arturo were talking to the major. Hell, how many times can you listen to his war stories? I came in here to take a nap."

"Your pupils are pinpoints, you took something for pain. Did that gorilla hurt you? He did, didn't he?" Hutch went on without giving Starsky a chance to answer. "That sadistic son-of-a-bitch, I'll kill him. And where the hell was Flores, he was supposed to—"

"Hutch, stop it! Flores was right there with me, the whole time. He ran block just fine. Hanson got rough and I couldn't take it anymore, Flores knocked him on his ass when he wouldn't stop after I told him to. He did just what you would have done if you'd been there. And stayed in character doing it." Starsky grimaced again as he fought to unwrap himself from the heavy bedspread and sit up. "What the hell is the matter with you?" Starsky asked raising his voice. "Hanson may be who we're after, we don't know that yet, but regardless, he's no different than any of the other therapists. He didn't tell me anything that they didn't. Gave me a hell of a more thorough going over than any of the others did. Said there was scar tissue in my back muscles that needed to be broken up. We knew that. He said it would hurt doing it, I've been told that before, too. So where are you coming from?"

Hutch stood, fists balled and breathing heavily unable to make his voice work to answer. Starsky eased off the bed to put his arms around Hutch and draw him close. "Talk to me, please? I'll be a little sore, that's all. It probably did me a lot of good. When the soreness goes away, you'll see." Starsky pulled back to look at Hutch's face. "You can't wrap me in cotton, babe. I'm not made that way...and you wouldn't want me if I was." Starsky smiled and kissed him quickly. "You hungry? What's the plan?"

Hutch tightened his arms around Starsky and just held on for a moment, eyes closed, fighting wave after wave of the familiar ache in his chest. The one that had been there since that midmorning in the garage. Reminded of Starsky's question, Hutch answered, "The major's grilling steaks by the pool. He said there were bathing suits and pool towels in one of the drawers in here, to help ourselves. The pool's 72 degrees. Anything warmer than that is bath water and not fit to swim in. The jacuzzi is 112, if it doesn't fry your balls it can't help ya," Hutch did a fair imitation of the salty military man. "Feel like a swim would help?" Hutch asked, searching Starsky's face for signs of pain.

"Yeah, it might work a little soreness out," Starsky admitted, accepting the skimpy suit Hutch handed him as he went back to choose one for himself.

"How come I get the Speedo and you get the long surf's-up one?" Starsky asked as he shinnied into the small suit.

"'Cause you've got the better ass, and I get to ogle it," Hutch replied, drawing the string tight around his waist, then tossing a towel over his shoulder and another to Starsky.

"Is Flores still here?" Starsky asked wrapping the towel around his shoulders and reaching for a clean t-shirt out of his overnight case and slipping it on with a groan.

"No, he went home. Lizzie's here, though. I think she's enjoying all the attention she's getting from Lotsoff."

"He's old enough to be her father, isn't he?" Starsky asked.

"Probably, but they're getting along just fine." Hutch smiled, knowing he hadn't quite successfully thrown off the mood of earlier, but trying.

"Let's go, we may need to protect her virtue," Starsky joked.

"I think she can take care of that on her own."

Starsky laughed, his hand halting Hutch just inside the door for a quick kiss. "I love you, did I say that today?"

"Yeah, this morning in the shower, but it's good to hear right now." And I need to hear it, Hutch thought.

The barking sound of the major's voice carried from the kitchen as they came out of the guest room. Starsky and Hutch exchanged glances before rounding the turn out of the hallway. Lizzie sat at the table nodding her encouragement at the tirade. Hutch turned questioningly to Starsky when he let out a groan, then tuned back in to the conversation.

"I'm spending good money to have him get the best of the best. That's how you came recommended. What the hell did you do to him today? He hasn't been out of bed since he got home. You're supposed to help him, not put him back flat on his back and taking drugs again, damn it."

Hutch stiffened at hearing the conversation and felt the earlier bubbling rage threaten.

Starsky reached for his arm and leaned closer to whisper, "Flores had the idea to complain and see if they offered any in-home treatment to help. I didn't get a chance to tell you that was the plan. I take it no one made it a part of the gabfest while I was sleeping?" Starsky looked hard at Lizzie who had the grace to blush as she shook her head and mouthed, "Sorry."

"Well, I think that's the least you can do. I want somebody over here first thing in the morning. I've got some business to attend to and I'd like to come home and find my nephew not worse off for the treatment I encouraged him to get than he was before he had it. Are you crystal clear on that, Mister?" Lotsoff shouted, and looked to Lizzie who was silently applauding his performance. "Good." Lotsoff hung up the phone sharply and Lizzie jumped out of her chair with a whoop.

"That was perfect!" she squealed. "Wasn't he great?" she turned enthusiastically to Starsky and Hutch.

"Yeah, that was great, you'd have gotten my attention," Hutch answered.

"What did they offer?" Starsky asked, fervently hoping it wasn't more therapy by Mr. Hanson.

"They're going to send a massage therapist over to do a gentle massage to help with the soreness caused by the overly vigorous treatment today. I didn't lay it on too heavy, did I?" Lotsoff looked to Starsky with the question. "Detective Flores said the guy was pretty brutal."

Lizzie ducked off the chair and busied herself with putting ice in glasses on a brightly colored tray. Starsky glanced far enough toward Hutch that Hutch was sure he'd caught his tight-lipped expression. "No, you did great, that was just what we wanted them to think. It was perfect." Starsky smiled and looked out toward the pool. "Man, those steaks smell great. This is really nice; we certainly appreciate your wonderful hospitality. Usually when we go undercover it's in a place where we need to take bug spray. Right, Hutch?" Starsky asked, obviously changing the subject.

"Glad to do it. Anything I can do to help catch the persons responsible for the crimes in this area. It's a quiet community, kinda boring actually, but everyone here got here the hard way, worked for it, and they don't deserve to have anybody steal it out from under them and murder their family in the process. Stan is a good man. He's lost without his wife, and it breaks my heart. Catching these guys won't bring her back, but there is a certain modicum of peace that justice brings."

Hutch raised the glass of iced tea Lizzie had handed him in salute, "Amen to that, Major," he intoned solemnly.

"I hope you don't mind eating a little early. I have tickets to the hockey game tonight. It's a box. We can all fit if you'd like to go?" Lotsoff looked expectantly at the three officers as he reached into the fridge to get out the large bowl of salad.

"I think in case anyone's watching the house, Captain Nussbaum and his attaché should stay here, but by all means you go ahead. Liz, you like hockey if I remember," Hutch enthused, and he saw Lizzie's eyes light up.

"I do, I love hockey, but if you have other plans to take...?"

"Liz, I'd much rather take you with me than the stuffy naval commander I usually go with. Let's eat, and I'll drive you to your place on the way to the Forum so you can change." Lotsoff opened the sliding screen door to the pool area as Lizzie floated past him. With a glance back to Hutch and Starsky, he winked, "You guys make yourself at home, and don't wait up."

Hutch smiled and Starsky chuckled outright as they moved with their glasses out to the deck to wait for the steaks to finish cooking.

Dinner was delicious and filled with pleasant conversation. Considering Starsky's military background, and the major's stint in the military police, there was enough common ground to make everyone comfortable. Hutch helped Lizzie clear away the dishes and encouraged Starsky to get in the jacuzzi. After Lizzie and Major Lotsoff left, Hutch went back out to the deck; Starsky was lying on one of the lounge chairs watching the stars wink out as it got darker

"I love this time of day," Starsky spoke as Hutch got closer, bringing a couple of beers.

"Why? It looks just like dawn and you hate that," Hutch teased.

"That's because it's morning and I have to get out of bed. Right now the day's getting ready to go to bed, everything is finished and quiet and peaceful. With dawn everything is just getting started...it's going to get busier, not more peaceful. Why do I think you can't see the distinction?"

"The glass is half full, or half empty, wasn't that the analogy you used once?" Hutch asked as he straddled the lawn chair to sit behind Starsky, easing him back snugly against his chest.

"Yeah, and you held me then, too," Starsky remembered aloud, tucking Hutch's arms around him and lacing their fingers together.

"We need to plan for tomorrow. I want Lizzie or Flores close to you when whoever it is comes out here for therapy, but not so close they feel they're too carefully watched to nose around if that's what they would normally do. I can't be here at all, they would recognize me from when I went by there to question Hanson."

"We'll take care of it. It'll be fine. Let's not think shop right now. It's too beautiful here, and we've got the place all to ourselves for hours."

"Yeah, Lotsoff said not to wait up, maybe we should go to bed real early," Hutch whispered as he nuzzled against Starsky's curls. "There's a TV and a VCR in the guest room... want to sit on that big bed and watch a movie? I noticed a lot of tapes in the library. I don't know what they are, but surely we'll find something."

"I'll go pick out a movie, you lock up. Give me a boost up, my shoulders are killing me." Starsky's voice sounded like he hated to ask for the help. Hutch obligingly helped support his lover upright and balanced him as he stepped over the end of the lounge chair.

Hutch locked up and gave the alarm box for the grounds and front gate one more check before going into the house to see what the feature choice for tonight was.

Hutch looked at the plain box with the letters, "Baby Blue," written neatly on the side, then raised his eyebrows at Starsky. "What's it about?"

"I don't know, but it reminded me of you. I've got, "Blazing Saddles," too, if this one's a bust." Starsky handed Hutch the tape and peeled off the dry but skimpy bathing suit, turning the covers back on the big bed and rolling in with a groan.

Hutch's back stiffened at the sound of the groan, but he made no comment. He pushed the tape in and hit play, fast-forwarding past the advertisements to get to the feature's start. As some blurred images of the ads flashed past, Hutch got glimpses of more skin than one usually saw, and all the bodies seemed muscular. Stopping the fast-forward, he stood slack jawed at seeing two men together on the screen. He turned to Starsky seeing much the same surprised expression mirrored there. The ad passed and the feature began, an obvious male hooker in a dark alley waiting for a John was the opening footage.

"Fast-forward a little and get to the good part," Starsky suggested sitting forward.

"You want to watch this? We can see this any evening down on Venice Beach." Hutch started to press stop.

"No wait, let's watch just a little." Starsky asked.

"Why?"

"Research," Starsky replied shyly.

"What?" Hutch turned fully around.

"You ever do it in the back door with Van?" Starsky demanded hotly.

"Me? You've got to be kidding. I had to bribe her with jewelry to get a blow job when she was on the rag," Hutch answered.

"Okay, I haven't done it either. I was just thinking it might give us an idea, that's all."

"Did you watch porno flicks before you made love to a girl?" Hutch asked, not sure why he found the prospect so irritating.

"Yeah, didn't you?" Starsky replied with a sly grin.

"I grew up in Minnesota, they'd self-destruct automatically coming across the state line," Hutch said.

"Is that why you always wanted to meet Huggy at that—" Starsky's comment was cut off by the throw pillow from the side chair hitting him squarely in the face.

The two men laughed and Hutch reluctantly crawled in bed leaving the VCR running, sound almost non-existent. They kissed and touched, not paying much attention to the movie at all until something caught Starsky's eye and he turned his attention back to the screen. The young male hooker was naked and in bed with a John who was treating him gently and with consideration, giving him uncharacteristic pleasure rather than just taking his own since he'd paid for it. The John was lubing his fingers and gently probing the young man's anus to loosen it in preparation for penetration. The young man, obviously liking the sensation was pushing back eagerly on the older man's hand. At the younger man's insistence that he was ready, the John poised behind the hooker and slowly entered him. The camera giving a bird's eye view as the young, tight ass swallowed up the impressive-sized cock with ease.

"Why do I think it would take a lot of practice for it to really be that easy?" Starsky asked, as he stared transfixed at the screen, the bedclothes tented up over his raging hard-on.

Hutch was equally affected by the sight and reached to wrap his hand around Starsky's hot length, stroking him smoothly with the exact timing of the two on the screen. Starsky watched and went with what he was seeing and feeling as he arched up into Hutch's hand. "So good, God, I love the way you do that," Starsky breathed, turning his face to take Hutch's mouth in a hungry passionate kiss. Hutch kissed back and pressed his own hardness rhythmically against Starsky's hip. Starsky threw the sheet back out of the way and grabbed at Hutch's shoulders as he moved faster in Hutch's grip shouting out his climax before he fiercely sucked Hutch's tongue. Starsky fell, relaxed into the big bed with a groan, his skin bathed in a light sheen of sweat and the faint post-coital blush that Hutch loved to see.

Hutch kissed over his chest and neck, still nudging at Starsky's hip with his hardness. Starsky reached to grab Hutch and stroke him, catching a glimpse on the screen of the younger man rimming the older one and he fumbled with the rhythm. Looking again he raised up on his elbow and slid off the end of the high bed.

"Where are you going?" Hutch asked, panting a little frantically.

"Slide down here a little," Starsky encouraged as he stood at the foot of the bed between Hutch's long legs. "My arms are too sore to lean on."

"Starsky, if you're hurting, you don't have to—" Hutch began.

"Shut up and scoot."

Hutch shimmied down as directed, and Starsky wrapped his long fingers around Hutch's length and guided him into the hot wetness of his mouth. Hutch groaned out his pleasure as he felt his toes literally curl. He raised his head to watch Starsky's mouth on him, also catching a view of the two men on screen. Starsky eased his mouth almost off Hutch's shaft to twirl his tongue around the head. Taking Hutch's groans as encouragement Starsky eased all the way off leaving with a kiss. Locking his eyes with Hutch's, Starsky took his index finger and put it deeply in his mouth to wet it, then drew a wet bead with the finger down the underside of Hutch's bobbing cock and beyond. Hutch felt himself swallowed back in the wet sucking heat of Starsky's mouth, yet the finger continued down. It was lightly tracing the skin separating his balls to rest under them, and went on to draw feather light touches around his anus, each circular pass pressing inward ever so slightly. It was driving Hutch crazy. He raised both his legs up, holding his thighs behind the knee to give Starsky more access. He wanted more, more of himself in Starsky's hot mouth, more of those inflaming touches at his center. He pressed downward with each pass of Starsky's finger until it slipped inside the tight ring. Hutch thrashed his head back and forth as he bit his lip, wanting not to come yet, wanting all these incredible feelings to last.

"Oh, God, babe, that's so good. More, push in more. I want to feel you deeper. Oh, my God." Hutch growled in pleasure as Starsky complied.

Without any warning Starsky's finger passed over something inside Hutch that sent an exploding shock straight to his dick. Hutch shouted and Starsky jumped back sliding off a little until Hutch pressed down and reinserted the finger in deeply where it had caused such mind-blowing sensations. "I'm not sure what you did but please don't stop. Oh, my God, I'm gonna...no, no, not yet, oh, man...push in me, God, Starsky, push now!" Hutch screamed and bucked down hard on Starsky's hand and drove his cock up into the waiting mouth, and was taken by the most powerful orgasm he could ever remember. It left him shaking all over, and when he finally risked opening his eyes he saw his lover still resting between his limp legs looking incredibly pleased with himself

"Someone told you I listed you as the beneficiary of my life insurance and you're trying to kill me," Hutch panted.

"You're a liar. I've been your beneficiary for years, that ain't nothing new." Starsky laughed and with a groan at his sore muscles he crawled back into the bed to cuddle close to Hutch. "How was it?" Starsky asked.

"Unbelievable. There aren't words to describe it. I've never felt anything like that, ever." Hutch tightened his arms around his lover and kissed the top of his curls. "I love you...more than anything."

"I love you, too, Blintz. Think you can sleep better tonight than you've been sleeping?" Starsky asked.

"You aren't planning to sleep in the other guest room are you?" Hutch asked, his voice already lowering.

"Hadn't planned on it. I shut that door when I came in here. I doubt the major will peek in any doors to tuck us in."

"Then I should sleep just fine," Hutch mumbled, almost asleep, only half noticing Starsky was still watching the TV.

**********

The sound of rain woke him, and he glanced at the open window in confusion at the bright sun pouring in, until he listened again more closely and realized the rain he'd heard was the shower running. He fell back and closed his eyes, not caring what time it was, just wishing he was still asleep and that his lover was curled up next to him instead of humming an old Beatles tune in the shower. He stretched, feeling the customary morning erection stretch to full length with him and he tapped it down lightly. "At ease, you got yours last night, but good," he remembered with a smile. His mind fixed on the gay porn video and he frowned slightly. "You gay, Major?" he wondered aloud. "Not exactly accepted by this man's army. And if you are, what's the deal with Lizzie? You're all over her. Smoke screen?" Maybe, he mused as he reluctantly rolled out of the big high bed and plodded toward the shower.

Starsky had just stopped the water as he entered and pushed back the curtain. Hutch handed him a towel and leaned in for a quick wet kiss, laughing as Starsky shook his hair at him like a dog, sending water droplets over Hutch's bare chest. "No, you keep getting it mixed up. I said I like the look of you wet. The way the drops shine on your hair, like your body's dusted in diamonds. Me wet? I look the same as me dry," Hutch said.

"How'd you sleep?" Starsky asked with a grin.

"Like a rock, I just would have liked another hour."

"Go back to bed then," Starsky said, muffled behind the towel as he dried his hair. "When do you have to be somewhere?"

"I have to get out of here before whoever they send for your therapy gets here. I've got a list of pawn shops and jewelry stores that take high-end estate stuff to follow up with," Hutch replied, sounding as bored as the assignment of the day would likely make him.

"Okay, let's see if we can find a coffeepot and a piece of toast before you go. I don't know what time the major got in last night, I never heard him."

"With the size of this place, I'm not surprised." Hutch moved past Starsky to get in the shower himself. Giving a glance at Starsky's back with the intent of drying the drops of water there, he saw faint areas of red with purple undertones in lines coming off his backbone and framing the puckered scars from the exit wounds. He locked his teeth together so tightly his jaw hurt. Hanson, you're a dead son-of-a-bitch.

Once dressed, Hutch followed the smell of coffee to the kitchen and found Starsky talking with Arturo on the deck. Pouring a cup he joined them. "Our host sleeping in?"

"No, he left a note on the table, he's playing golf and had a six-thirty tee-time," Arturo answered. "The physical therapist comes this morning, I've got a surveillance camera to put on a tripod in the hall closet. I can get a good view of the den and I've moved the furniture a little to make an empty space to set up a table. I've got the doors to the library open and a couple of the fake paintings set up on display easels to catch their eye. There's also a few expensive statues with some pretty impressive jewel inlay on the shelves in the den, so it will give them something to look at without even trying."

"Well, let there be some other things a little less obvious. I don't want them to smell a plant," Hutch cautioned, as he finished his coffee and grabbed a bagel off the plate on the table.

"I'd better get going. I've got a list that I'd like to make a dent in today and get it over with." He gave Starsky a wink while his back was to Flores, then turned to address his temporary partner. "Call me after the therapy session. Stay close enough to see that it isn't a repeat of yesterday, that son-of-a-bitch left bruises." Hutch's voice was breaking ice that was a match for the frosty look in his eyes aimed at Arturo.

"Right, I will."

"Actually, in spite of being sore, I feel pretty good, not so stiff when I got out of bed this morning. So even though it felt like he was killing me yesterday, it might have done some good. But if that's what he has in mind for tomorrow, I hope we can bust him today. I think I'd rather have you do it a little at a time." Starsky looked at Hutch with such trust it twisted his heart. They both knew they'd slacked off a little on those things that hurt Starsky, and deep muscle massage to break up the scar fibers on Starsky's back was the main one. It seemed easier and more positive to concentrate on the wind and stamina of the walks and easy runs they were doing instead.

"Maybe if you get in the jacuzzi tonight, we'll work on it a little before we turn in. You guys be careful. There's a black-and-white at the park two blocks over if you need backup quickly. I'll be checking in. Stay safe," Hutch offered sincerely as he left.

**********

Arturo opened the door in answer to the chimes and nodded his greeting to the woman who towered over him by at least four inches. She smiled and extended her, hand holding a card in it with the embossed logo of the rehab center on it. "I'm Andrea Corbett, I believe we met yesterday when Captain Nussbaum was being evaluated."

"Yes, come in, please," Arturo said, sliding easily into the thick accent and submissive posture. "I have cleared a place for you to set up in the den, this way. Do you need any help?"

She smiled as she easily carried her table in its case through the door and followed to the den.

"How's the captain feeling this morning?" she asked.

"He spend yesterday in bed when we got home. He had much pain. Today is a little better, at least he got up to eat. Major Lotsoff was very mad. He went out this morning early, it may be good that he's not here, yes?" Andrea opened the case and began setting up the massage table and covering it with linens. "Sometimes in the process of making a patient better you have to hurt them to help. It isn't easy for family to accept that," Andrea said as she worked.

"The major can understand that, he just needs to see the help part soon. I tell the captain you're here. Hang up your jacket, please?" Arturo held out his hand to take the lab coat Andrea was wearing. When she shrugged out of it, he went to the hall closet and hung it on a hanger, turning on the camera and positioning the door slightly ajar.

He went into the kitchen where Starsky was waiting. "It's the lady Amazon from yesterday. Rumple your hair up a little, you look too good." Arturo said. "She's set up where we wanted her in the den, and I've got the camera going. I thought we'd give her a few minutes to nose around there. I already said the major was out, so I don't know how more open we can make it for her."

"Right, I'll give her a second. Where are you gonna be?" Starsky asked, thinking of the impressive woman who outclassed him easily in size and strength.

"I'll be puttering in the kitchen, I've got Enrique set up outside the den window doing the weeding of those flower beds and he'll have an eye out. If you get in trouble, start coughing. If he hears that, he knows to come get me right away."

"Well, don't let him be too obvious," Starsky warned and Arturo cut him off.

"Menial laborers are invisible to the wealthy, didn't you know that? She'll never notice him," Arturo said.

"I've never been wealthy," Starsky answered dryly, as he frowned his curiosity when Arturo moved to stand behind him and gently raised the hem of the loose t-shirt he wore, then let it fall again.

"I'm sorry I didn't stop him sooner. I thought you were still faking it, I didn't realize he was truly hurting you...."

"Hey forget it, you had no way of knowing. I should've set up some sort of signal for you to know, my fault. Don't go putting on that Hutchinson hair shirt; one of you is enough, believe me," Starsky said. Taking in a deep breath in preparation, he hunched over slightly and began moving slowly toward the den. "Let's get the show on the road."

He coughed a few times to give Andrea the warning of his approach and to set the stage if he needed the coughing fit later for help. Andrea was dutifully waiting next to her massage table and smiled as he entered. "Good morning. I was sorry to hear you were so uncomfortable after yesterday. I'm here to help that. I'd like to put some hot packs in some warm water, or a microwave if you have one, and these gel packs need to go in the freezer."

Starsky pointed toward the hall that led to the kitchen. "Go through those French doors and Arturo is in the kitchen, he'll take care of whatever you need. You want me on my back or my stomach on this thing?"

"On your stomach, please, to start. Do you need help getting up there?" she asked.

"No, I can do that much." Starsky sat on the table grimacing legitimately as he used his arms to scoot backward, shrug out of his shirt, then lower himself down to his stomach. As he turned over, he looked out the window to see the straw fedora of the yard man, Enrique, working outside the window as Arturo had requested. He made a mental note to thank him later for his support.

Andrea returned carrying her hot packs wrapped in towels, and she placed them on Starsky's back. "Let this warm up the tissue for a few moments, I'll go use the restroom if you don't mind and be right back. Is it down this hall?"

"Yes, the door to the right just past the library," Starsky answered hard pressed to keep the smile out of his voice.

The table under him was nicely padded and the warmth of the packs across his back felt so good he was tempted to tune out and just lie there and appreciate it; but he kept his attention tightly attuned to any movement he could hear in the other part of the house. In a matter of moments, Andrea was back and, after gently removing the packs, she began massaging the muscles of his back. She was good, he had to give her that. She eased at even the slightest tightening up as she passed over a particularly tender spot, working in from the edges until each area was less painful. She wiped off the excess oil from his skin and stepped back.

"Sit up, please, while I go to the kitchen and get the cold packs, then you can lie down on them while I take care of your chest," Andrea instructed as she quickly left the room. She returned almost immediately and rested a thin gel ice pack on the table and covered it with a towel. Then, holding her arm out to help support him, she lowered Starsky down to rest against it. She then rested another iced gel pack shaped like a sleep mask over his eyes. "Just relax, now. I'll go warm up the hot packs for your chest and I'll be right back."

She was gone much longer this time and Starsky strained to hear her footsteps on the plush carpet, but was never sure if they were real or imagined. I'll just have to trust that the camera gets something. He was actually startled slightly when he felt her hand touch his arm before placing the warm packs over his upper chest and shoulders. Moving his nose slightly he eschewed the gel mask enough to get a glimpse out from under the edge on one side, and could see Andrea take a small camera out of her purse. She moved in fluid silence around the room taking pictures of the statues and a few of the paintings on the walls. With a glance back at Starsky she stared for several seconds not moving, and he let a small snore escape his lips, then another. It seemed to be an opening she was willing to use, and she stepped quickly down the hall. In a matter of a few minutes she returned and removed the warm packs, still leaving the gel mask in place and repeated the massage process over his chest and shoulders.

When she was finished and had wiped off the oil, she excused herself to the kitchen once more to return with more lightweight cold pads for his chest and shoulders. "Just lie here and relax a few minutes, I'll pack up a few things and wash my hands." Starsky heard her walk down the hall once more.

I'm going to hate to put you in jail, lady. You give a great massage, he thought as he let his body relax in the spreading coolness of the gel packs. He counted silently to himself and estimated she was gone just under five minutes and judged she was taking more pictures in other areas of the house. She returned, again clearing her throat as she approached to announce her arrival.

"Feeling better?" she asked as she removed the gel packs and extended her arm to slide under Starsky's shoulders to help him sit up.

"Yes," he answered truthfully. "That did help a lot, yesterday damn near killed me. Is he always that rough?"

"Mr. Hanson is a very strong man, as I'm sure you noticed, but he didn't mean to hurt you unnecessarily. Breaking up adhesions in muscle is a painful process. If you've had any physicians or therapists that suggested anything differently, they weren't being honest. In your type of injury, like in the case of scarring after being burned, there just isn't any other way to deal with it. There isn't any surgery that can be done to go in and break up the scar tissue without creating more. It just takes exercise, deep muscle therapy, to actually pull the scarred-down muscle fibers loose from each other and more exercise to keep it loose. I wish I could tell you there was a shortcut in time or effort, but that just isn't so."

Starsky pulled his shirt back on and sat on the ledge in front of the fireplace as Andrea folded the linens off the table, then the table itself. "And how many treatments do you think it will take to break all the scar tissue loose?"

"I wouldn't make a guess, that would be Mr. Hanson's judgment. You'll be seeing him again tomorrow, right?" she asked.

"Yes. Is it going to be as bad then as it was yesterday?" Starsky asked not even trying to hide his dread.

"I wouldn't think so. Alternate the ice and heat the rest of today, and ice down immediately following the session tomorrow. If you like and you think today helped you, I can arrange to come back later in the evening tomorrow or first thing in the morning on Saturday and see if the combination of the therapy at the center and here at home makes it a bit more tolerable. I've got a lot of patients who have had very good results that way." Andrea snapped the lock on her table's case and stood, eyebrows raised in question.

"Well, today certainly helped; there's no question about that. Keep Saturday morning open. If tomorrow isn't as rough, I'll cancel the appointment. We'll see how it goes." Starsky stiffly stood. "Let me have someone help you out with that." Starsky turned toward the kitchen and called, "Arturo, come here, please."

Flores entered almost immediately, looking at Starsky and awaiting instructions. "Please get her coat and help Ms. Corbett to her car with the table."

Arturo took a step in her direction, but she waved him off. "I lug this around all the time, it's not a problem, if you'll just hold the door." She smiled back in Starsky's direction. "Be sure you keep on it with the ice and heat, drink plenty of water today, especially over the next hour or so. I left you an herbal tea bag in the kitchen. Put it in a cup of boiling water and drink it within the hour. It will help draw out the lactic acid in the muscles. It will help with the soreness a lot. It is a remedy we all used in training for the Olympics. Believe me, I know about sore muscles. It will help, honestly. Completely natural, rosehips and chamomile. I'll see you tomorrow at the center." She walked easily out the door, accepting her coat without comment and Arturo closed the door gently behind her.

"Me, help her with the table?" Arturo asked, wide-eyed. "Did you see the biceps on that chick? She could carry me out with the table and not break a sweat." Arturo, glanced covertly out the peephole on the front door. "How are you feeling, did it help?"

"Yeah, it really did, I feel great. I hate to lock her up, I could use those massages a couple of times a week."

"Well, we've got her on tape, the camera was aimed right at the table, maybe you can teach Hutch her technique," Arturo offered as he turned around. "I slipped Enrique my camera and he got some shots of her taking pictures of some of the stuff in the library," Arturo beamed at him.

"I saw her taking some shots of stuff in here, too, when she thought I was dozing. Let's get everything developed and see what we've got." Starsky stood, getting ready to slip into his shoes.

"Where do you think you're going?" Arturo asked.

"We're going down to get the film to the lab and—"

"No, we're not. I am," Arturo said firmly. "If they have someone staking out the place, they can't see you bopping out of here like nothing's wrong. They won't think anything about the hired help leaving, and the major should be home in a couple of hours, so they won't think it's strange that you're being left alone very long, either." Arturo went to the hall closet to get the camera. "Don't give me any of your hang-dog faces, that won't work on this partner. I've got a four-year-old at home who's a champ. You don't stand a chance." Arturo laughed easily. "I'll be back as soon as these are done and we'll have home movie night." He moved toward the garage exit off the kitchen. "Give Hutch a call, he'll be glad to know you're feeling better. I know how you felt after yesterday really ate at him," Arturo tossed back over his shoulder as Starsky watched him leave.

Starsky stretched his shoulders gingerly, relieved that today hadn't been a repeat of the agony of yesterday and briefly hoping, however unrealistically, that the case could get wrapped up before he went under Hanson's hands again tomorrow.

He sat at the bar stool in the kitchen and picked up the phone, dialing the main precinct number. "This is Detective Starsky, patch me through to Detective Hutchinson, please. Thank you." Starsky waited through a few clicks and some silence before he heard the voice that never failed to warm him.

"Hutchinson here."

"Starsky here. How ya doing? When you get a chance to stop for lunch, land-line me here and I'll fill you in on how this morning went."

"You're okay, aren't you?"

"Yeah, I'm great. I haven't felt this good in a long time. In fact, why not give a few of those leads on your list to Lizzie to check out and you come by. Arturo won't be back for a couple of hours, he went to get some film developed. The maid said the major always stays to eat lunch at the country club when he plays golf, so he won't be home for a while either," Starsky said.

"I'd love to, you know that, but I shouldn't be seen coming there in daylight wearing civilian clothes. I'll be there after I go home and shower and put on the army green. We'll keep up the pretence. It won't be much longer. Lizzie thought she'd be done giving her deposition in another case right after lunch, and she'll be by to keep you company. You sound bored."

"I am, but it ain't her company I want."

"Good thing...I'll see you soon."

"Bye." Starsky sighed as he hung up.

Starsky walked aimlessly around the kitchen and the deck outside, "Damn right I'm bored," Starsky muttered. He walked back into the house and found himself outside the library. He gave a brief glance to the planted paintings and hoped that Andrea had gotten her greedy appetite whetted. Then he went to the shelves of unmarked video boxes where he had gotten the video he and Hutch had watched last night. Choosing another, he took the box back to the guest room. "We'll see if you laugh at my research tonight, Blondie, when I get my hands on you," Starsky muttered to himself as he locked the door.

After an hour or so of research, a well deserved jack-off, and short nap, Starsky got up, took a quick shower and went in search of anyone else at home yet. There was a note on the refrigerator door addressed to the major from Maria, the maid, reminding him that tonight's dinner was on the bottom shelf and she would be visiting her mother as was her custom every Thursday. She would return in the morning. Enrique was with her and they had taken the truck to get the bags of fertilizer for the lower slope leading to the beach. While they were out, they would get new railroad ties to reinforce it, since the rains washed some of the sand away. It suddenly struck Starsky that he was alone in a house that they had deliberately set up to be robbed. He looked around feeling a quick prickling of the hair at the back of his neck. He discounted it with a snort, but went to the guest room and checked that his gun was still where he'd left it in his overnight case. Confirming that it was, he started to put it in his belt, but aborted the thought with a self-deprecating grunt and left it where it was. He returned to the kitchen and took in the spectacular view of the ocean, noting the morning marine layer had finished burning away and opened up the view. He walked out on the deck and picked his way carefully down the steep steps, intent on doing a walk in the sand for his exercise of the day.

"Playing the cripple has made me feel like one again. I don't intend to lose the ground I've gained," he said sternly and strode out picking up his pace. He hadn't gotten very far when he was breathing hard and the muscles around his ribs, both back and front, were burning. He sat down on a rock outcropping to catch his breath and rest, enjoying the breeze and the salt air.

Starsky's eyes followed the lazy glide of a pelican in the air, squinting against the sun until another sight caught his attention. He could see the driveway where it intersected the main road and noticed that the gate was open. He watched for a moment thinking the major was back and that the gate would shut as it usually did automatically. But it stayed open. He climbed a short distance up the rocks to get a glimpse of the curved driveway to see if there was a car parked in it by the front or side entrance, but saw nothing. Giving another check to see that the gate had still not closed, he slowly retraced his steps, wishing now he had followed his first instincts and palmed the gun.

He moved stealthily around the side of the rocks and looked up at the severe incline that bordered the side of the house farthest away from the visible section of the deck and garage. Given the abuse of yesterday, there was no way his arms would support him trying to climb that far, almost straight up. That left him with no choice but to retrace his steps back the way he'd come and hope if there really were someone in the house that they were occupied in rooms other than the kitchen where his approach from the beach would be totally observed.

"Maybe it's Liz and she forgot to close the gate," he mumbled, not buying it even as he heard the words. Doing his best to ignore the sharp cramp in his side, he pushed himself to hurry up the incline in the loose sand. Ducking under the stairs to catch his breath and see if he could hear anything in the house above him, Starsky waited.

He could hear isolated footfalls that created creaks at intervals. Whoever was up there was walking from room to room, and there was more than one. He waited until he heard the concentration of footfalls the greatest distance away and took his chances to dash up the stairs. He quickly crossed the surface of the deck, flattened himself against the wall of the house and listened. He could hear muffled voices, one male and one female. He did not recognize them other than he could say for sure it was not Hutch or Lizzie. He quietly edged along the house wall, hoping the French doors of the library were unlocked so he could slip in there and run down the hall to the guest room to get his gun.

He slowly reached out his hand to test the knob of the French doors to the library and was discouraged at how badly it shook. His spirits lifted immediately upon the feel of the knob turning in his hand and the door swung silently inward.

He stepped into the library and stopped briefly to listen. Hearing nothing, he glanced around. He noted that the artwork that had been standing on the display easels was gone, the easels barren skeletons in the early afternoon shadows. He quickly moved to lean against the doorjamb nearest the hall, faintly hearing voices near the den. He swung himself around and sprinted to the guest room. He rushed in and shut the door quietly, leaning against it for just a second to try and slow his frantically fast heartbeat. He grabbed his suitcase out of the closet and fumbled inside for his gun. Finding it and closing it securely in his hands brought a calming deep breath.

He then walked quietly over to the phone, picked it up and dialed the operator to get help on the way. Giving the address in a hurried whisper he identified himself and called in a 211 in progress.

**********

Hutch took out the sheet as he finished typing the report and was preparing to sign it when he saw Arturo walk into the squadroom.

"Have you talked to Starsky recently?" Arturo asked sounding irritated.

"A while ago, why?"

"The line was busy before when I tried it, it's still busy. When exactly did you speak to him?"

Hutch looked at the clock on the wall, "A little after noon, why?" Hutch pressed.

"I just got these pictures developed at the lab." Arturo handed a stack of photos to Hutch, then leaned closer. "Look at this one, I had them blow it up. See what she's doing?"

"Messing with the property's perimeter alarm." Hutch recognized the hallway where Andrea was standing and the box on the wall in front of her.

"Look closely at what numbers she programmed. Can you tell? She's turned the alarm to disable for two o'clock this afternoon. It's after that now and the phone's busy at Lotsoff's. I radioed the black-and-white close by to check things. We'd better head over." Arturo picked up the photos as Hutch quickly stood and grabbed his jacket, as they hurried out of the room.

"Why would she try to hit the place so soon?" Hutch asked as Arturo drove toward the beach.

"Maybe they've watched all the houses in that area enough to establish a pattern on each of the people who live there. Didn't Maria say today was the major's golf day, and the day she visited her mother? If they know there won't be anyone home...." Arturo said.

"But Starsky's there, and he's home. She was there this morning, she knows he wasn't going anywhere," Hutch reasoned. "Would she think after the massage he'd be so relaxed he'd take a nap and sleep through it, why would they take that kind of chance? Why not wait until he's at the clinic?"

"Asleep—Oh, shit!" Arturo gunned the car to go faster.

"What?" Hutch asked feeling the color drain from his face.

"She left him a tea bag. Told Starsky to brew it and drink it within the hour as she was leaving. She said it would help with the soreness of his muscles. Told him it was something the athletes used when they trained for the Olympics. I'll bet you anything I've got that it wasn't rosehips and chamomile like she said."

Hutch reached across to grab the hand piece from the radio. "Central dispatch this is Zebra Three, I need an ambulance dispatched to 41317 Driftwood Lane, suspected poisoning. Thanks. Zebra Three out." Hutch let the mic fall from nearly numb fingers. He could feel the fast racing of his heartbeat in his ears, but inside...in that place in his chest where he had been hurting since Starsky's shooting...in that place gripped by that icy hand, he felt a deadly calm. If Starsky's dead, there isn't a power on Earth to save you, Hanson. I'll kill you and your girlfriend on the spot.

They noticed the open gate as they approached the house; there was no other activity. Arturo grabbed the radio. "This is Flores in Zebra Three. I asked for back-up here twenty minutes ago. There's supposed to be a black-and-white assigned here. Where the hell are they?"

The radio crackled a second before the dispatch voice responded. "Unit 624 was rerouted to a hit-and-run about three blocks over. They had driven past and said everything was clear at that current address. Nothing but a malfunction of the gate and the repairman was on site fixing it. Are you finding there to be a problem, Zebra Three?"

"Yes, there's a problem. Be sure the ambulance we called for doesn't get rerouted, and get that black-and-white back up here!" Hutch grabbed the mic and hissed his reply, then threw it down in disgust. Drawing his Magnum, he quietly got out of the car, gesturing with his chin that Arturo should pull his car up a bit to block the driveway exit.

Arturo joined him in the bushes off the front entrance and they watched as Hanson and Andrea loaded one of the larger pieces of art in the back of the van in the driveway. They walked nonchalantly back into the house, their posture unhurried and without a trace of anxiety.

"Sure of themselves, aren't they?" Arturo whispered.

Hutch ran silently to the far side of the van, glancing in as he passed, long enough to ascertain that there was no one sitting in it. He noted that it was indeed loaded down with the planted contraband and several others of Major Lotsoff's collectible pieces of art and sculpture. He nodded his readiness to Flores and the detectives swung around as one unit to enter the foyer of the house through the propped open door.

Arturo inched along, motioning that he was headed toward the library, Hutch nodded his understanding and indicated his direction toward the other end of the house that included the den and kitchen.

Hutch listened intently as he moved quietly along the wall. He heard the opening of a cabinet door and the lyric ping of crystal touching something, and judged whoever was in the den had opened the large display door in the German shrunk that covered most of one wall. It would mean the person standing there would have their back to Hutch as he approached. Praying they hadn't turned around, he quickened his pace. Reaching the end of the hall, he dodged slightly to the other side to be able to look in but still be partially obscured by the partition of the hallway. Andrea stood with her back fully to him reaching for some of the expensive items in the shrunk. She squatted to place them in a padded suitcase. Hutch took several fast steps and placed his gun none too gently at the back of her neck. "Don't drop it, that little baby is pretty pricey," Hutch whispered as he produced his handcuffs out of his back pocket. "Set it down carefully and put your hands on the glass. If you make a sound, I'll shoot the side of your face off. It won't kill you, but you won't be very attractive. Do you have any doubt at all that I'm serious as hell?" Hutch's question was punctuated by a tap of his gun barrel just behind her ear. She fractionally shook her head and slowly brought her hands around to rest on the glass as ordered. Hutch cuffed first the right one, then, using the open handcuff as a handle, pulled that arm down and pinned it to her lower back with his knee until he could use his other hand to drag her left one down and cuff it also. He turned her to face him and kept the gun ominously close to her face.

"Where's Starsky?" he asked.

"Who?"

"Nussbaum."

"I don't know. I expected him to be sleeping when we got here, but the house was empty."

"What did you try to drug him with?" Hutch asked, his rage bubbling closer to the surface at the thought.

"A tea bag, laced with choral hydrate," she answered.

"How much?"

"I don't know, it's a liquid, we just pour on a little. You'd have to ask Derek, he gets it and makes them up."

"I'll do that. Sit down, and if you make a sound, my original offer still holds." Hutch warned as he pushed her into a side chair, then took her jacket and pulled it down her arms tying the ends behind her securing her tightly to the chair.

Hutch ran silently to the kitchen and saw nothing out of the ordinary until his eyes fell on a cup near the stove. It held a greenish liquid, was fairly full, and the tea bag still floated in it. A cautious sniff registered an herbal fragrance.

Hutch eased back into the hall and moved to where he heard muted voices at the other end of the house. The library was empty as he passed it and he moved further to the master suite. He rounded the corner, and his entrance attracted the attention of Starsky and Flores as they stood holding their weapons on Derek Hanson. It was the chance the man had waited for. He threw the heavy lead crystal ashtray in his hand at Arturo, hitting him in the side of the head. Flores went down like a poleaxed tree. Hanson spun a well-placed kick at Starsky's gun hand, sending the weapon flying. Hutch brought his own gun to bear on Hanson, but the big man grabbed Starsky to use as a shield. Anticipating the move, Starsky dropped to his knees so the physical therapist had to hold him awkwardly. Hanson crouched, never letting go of his dangerous grip on Starsky.

"Stay where you are and drop your gun, or I'll snap his neck," Hanson roared.

"You let him go and step away," Hutch's voice was calm and soothing, Starsky stared at him wide-eyed. "You are not leaving here, and you're not going to hurt him, either. It'll go a lot easier on you if you do as I say. If you kill him, I'll put a bullet in your throat and watch you drown in your own blood and not do a thing to help you. Considering this is a .357 I'm holding, the shot will make you a quad in the process." Hutch took a small step closer. "Even if you lived, would you want to? How many months on a Stryker frame before that great body of yours starts to atrophy away? Let's see...what else? The shot would take out your voice box. You couldn't talk. So there you'd be, a brain with eyes to see and ears to hear, but you couldn't move a muscle. Couldn't even call for help if you needed it. You'd just be spending the rest of your miserable life seeing other people walking around and hearing them talk about you as if you weren't even there. Isn't that how you guys do it? Huh?" Hutch moved a little closer. "No pain, no gain?" Hutch let all the months of pent-up rage surface. "Maybe there'd be some hotshot hard body assigned to take care of you...poetic justice, don't you think, after the torture you do and get paid for it." Hutch brought his gun up and cocked it. "What's it going to be?" Hutch let his face take on a calm smile and in his peripheral vision he could see Starsky's face, frowning. "Give me a reason, God, please, I don't even need much...." Hutch whispered.

Arturo groaned and stirred where he lay on the floor behind Hutch and Hanson's eyes darted fractionally toward the sound. "Starsky, now!" Hutch yelled, and Starsky rammed Hanson's groin with his elbow and rolled out of his grasp.

Hutch dove at Hanson who was holding his own genitals and knocked the big man the rest of the way to the floor. Straddling his stomach Hutch punched him repeatedly in the face. Hanson's hands were effectively pinned and useless where Hutch straddled him and he was no longer squirming to fight back. Hutch drew back and hit the already unconscious man again and drew back to deliver another blow when he felt a hand grab his arm. He tried to shake it loose but the fingers tightened, and he turned to see Starsky standing there.

"It's over, babe, we won. You did what you promised Mr. Zychowicz. You got him, now get off and let Arturo cuff him." Starsky pulled slightly and Arturo joined in lifting Hutch off Hanson's body.

Hutch felt a little dazed. He looked at Arturo with concern at the blood on the side of his head. He reached to check him but Arturo brushed the hand away. "It's okay, my head's the hardest part about me."

Hutch reached again to capture Arturo's chin to get a look at his eyes. Once he was satisfied that they focused and the pupils were equal, he let go and stepped away from Hanson's body. The room suddenly seemed stuffy and hot. Two officers and the crew from the ambulance had arrived and flooded into the room, also.

"There's another one handcuffed in the front part of the house," Hutch said to one of the patrol officers.

"Yeah, we got her, she's already in the car," he replied.

Hutch nodded his thanks and staggered out of the bedroom. He ducked into the bathroom off the hall and shut the door, leaning against the back of it. When he closed his eyes all he could see was the bloody face of Hanson as he had hit him again and again. He felt the bile rise up in his throat and he propelled himself away from the door to kneel in front of the toilet and empty the contents of his stomach. He wasn't aware of the door opening, only the draft as it closed again and the feel of Starsky's hands rubbing his back.

He shook his head and shuddered slightly at the bitter taste in his mouth, feeling it matched perfectly by the bitter taste in his soul. "I...wanted to...I would have...." He wretched again, but there was no more to bring up.

"Sshhh," Starsky soothed. "No, you wouldn't. Here, rinse your mouth out." Starsky offered Hutch a glass of water.

Hutch took the water gratefully, then poured the rest over his head, wetting his shorter than normal hair, and letting the drips fall mostly in the toilet.

Starsky handed him a damp washcloth and Hutch wiped his face and hair. He twisted off one knee to sit and rest his back against the vanity cabinet. "Better?" Starsky asked, still squatting next to him.

"I think so. Are you okay?" Hutch's hand trembled as he reached to touch his lover's face.

"Yeah, I'm fine."

"You didn't drink any of that tea, did you?"

"Are you kidding? Did you smell that stuff? It's worse than that dedicated liver thing you used to make for breakfast," Starsky answered.

"Desiccated." Hutch corrected. Looking up into Starsky's face, the concern he saw there fractured him. "I'm sorry...I'm...I'm no better than they are. W- what have I become?" Hutch felt Starsky's arm snatch him forward and wrap tightly around him.

"Stop that. You aren't anything bad, you're just stressed. You've spent so much time helping me heal you haven't taken care of yourself. Well, I'm okay now, babe, so let me be the one to take care of you a little, okay?"

"I wanted to kill him." Hutch gripped the front of Starsky's shirt as if it were a lifeline. "His face kept changing, it was the guy in the garage that tried to kill us, then it was Gunther, then it was Soldier, then that goon in the hospital that hurt you so badly day after day and seemed to take pleasure in it." Hutch's voice broke. "It got all mixed up."

"I know, but it's over, now. We won, all the way around. I'm okay and you're okay. We solved this case and we're gonna ask Dobey for a week off. I'll see if I can get that beach place again, and we'll go and relax and talk and make love. We're okay. You can let it all go." Starsky kissed Hutch's face and neck as he held him and rubbed his shoulders and back.

There was a soft knock on the door and Arturo's voice sounded on the other side. "Everything okay in there?"

"Yeah, thanks," Starsky shouted back.

"We're okay," Hutch offered, pulling back to stand up.

Starsky handed Hutch the wet cloth again and he wiped over his face and hung it on the rack. When he turned back around he saw Starsky watching him. "We are, aren't we?" Starsky asked softly.

"Yeah," Hutch answered. "We are."

**********

Arturo was seated at the desk when Starsky and Hutch walked in. He glanced up and smiled, the bruised area on the side of his face from Hanson's blow almost gone. "Well, well, look who decided to come back and work for a living," he teased.

"Yeah, so look out," Starsky fainted a couple of play punches in his direction, then patted his back.

Arturo glanced at Hutch with an exaggerated open-mouthed stare. "I never knew gringos could get so tan. Is there more to Huggy calling you ‘bro' than I thought?"

"Sshhh, deep family secret," Hutch teased back.

"Hey you look great. Really rested." Arturo glanced at Starsky. "I'm glad you got him to take off, he needed it."

"We both did," Starsky replied seriously. "So what's been going on? I ran into your new partner when we came in. You and Lizzie, huh? Good for you. You've got the experience as a detective and she knows the area from her time in Vice. Good match."

"Yeah, now I just have to convince my wife of that." Arturo rolled his eyes.

"Hey, I'll talk to her if you want, Lizzie is no home wrecker. Believe me, after the divorce she went through a couple of years ago, that is definitely a non-issue. She's the most straight shooting woman I've ever met," Hutch offered sincerely.

"Besides, she said she's still seeing the major, that should help," Starsky offered with a little laugh as he and Hutch exchanged private glances.

"Yeah, I told her that, too," Arturo answered. "She'll adjust, Lizzie's being great about it. Not so friendly that it looks artificial, it'll work out. I'm lucky to have her as a partner, I think we'll be fine."

"Me, too. Now get off my desk," Starsky rumbled. "I'm officially cleared and completely reinstated." Starsky put his hand on Hutch's shoulder and continued, "This is my partner and I don't share. You've got your own blonde." Starsky softened the words with a lopsided grin but nevertheless started helping Arturo clear his things away, moving everything over to Lizzie's desk.

Dobey stood in the opening of his office door and observed the latest exchange, whispering softly as he closed the door. "Thank God, and welcome back."

**********

*What Do I See When I Look at You by Martha Bonds

**********

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"The Unforgotten," by Sarah Problem

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