The Mirror Crack'd
by Hutchrules3

SHSVS, Episode 703

For Paula

**********

What's that what's that what's that?
There's a noise. Did she hear it? Who is it?
We know we know we know we know
You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I'm telling you why...
It's him it's him it's him it's him
We better get him before he gets us...
Santa Claus is coming to town.

**********

It was quite possibly the longest "weekend" in history.

Driving back to the station, muffling yawn after yawn into one grubby hand, Hutch mentally put the weekend in quotes--a fitting tribute, he guessed, to a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday that had contained forty-eight straight hours of work. Once upon a time, he and Starsky could have pulled this kind of duty with little more than an extra pot of coffee and a brief snooze at the end. It had given them status on the bizarre totem pole at the station: how many consecutive hours can you take before you fall flat on your face? But as he approached forty, Hutch discovered he had neither the stamina nor the desire to compete with younger officers, particularly since they didn't have to spend that time with their lover tantalizing inches away, unable to touch him.

The paralyzing tedium of waiting had been abruptly followed by high-speed action, like a slow-motion film suddenly kicked into fast-forward. Their target had shown up outside the warehouse district where Starsky and Hutch had been waiting, and after hours of near immobility, they had tumbled out of the car and straight into an exhausting foot chase. While the unscrupulous businessman's bodyguards had surrendered with surprising meekness, the man himself had taken off in a sprint that spoke of hours spent at a gym and running track. Sighing in tandem, the two detectives had followed him through narrow spaces between the warehouses, plowing through stacks of dusty debris and rank garbage. Eventually, the man made the fatal mistake of ducking into an office trailer--to call someone? Get a gun? Hutch didn't much care, though he couldn't help wonder why a man who had eluded them for weeks had made such a patently stupid move. They had ended the chase shortly thereafter, dragging their suspect out of the trailer and delivering him with great relief to the black-and-whites that had gathered on the site.

"Home," Starsky had suggested with feeling as they'd trudged back to the car. Hutch had paused for a moment, allowing himself to envision the instant gratification of a hot shower and a cold beer, then shook his head regretfully.

"We have to go back to the station, book him, and get the paperwork done," he said. Starsky had unsuccessfully stifled a groan. "I know," Hutch said sympathetically. "But look at it this way, Starsk. Dobey promised us a few days off, and I'd rather not have that report hanging over our heads."

Starsky had considered, his dark head tilted to one side. Then he had given a definite approving nod, the movement shaking dust and unmentionables from his hair to swirl crazily through the harsh gleam of the patrol cars' headlights. Hutch chased another impulse from his mind--the desire to reach out one hand and tenderly brush the rest of the grime from the sleek dark curls--and to then trail the hand down his partner's neck and back.

Starsky grinned at him, teeth flashing white against the dirt on his face.

"I know what you're thinking," he murmured teasingly, and Hutch flushed. "Think you got the willpower to wait until we get home, Blondie?"

"I don't think we have a lot of choice," Hutch said reluctantly. "But the sooner we get to the station, the less willpower we'll need."

Starsky had turned and made a beeline toward Hutch's sedan. "Get the lead out then, Hutchinson," he ordered over his shoulder, with another smile that threatened to buckle Hutch's already unsteady legs.

Hutch glanced over at Starsky, who sat with his knees pressed against the dashboard, eyes closed, dark head lolling back and forth gently with the movement of the car. In its original stake-out position, the sedan had been parked a safe distance from the rest of the activity, and in a conveniently dark corner. The minute they'd climbed inside, Starsky had clasped a hand around Hutch's knee, moved it seductively up to the crease between his thigh and groin, and rested it there for a moment, pulsing against the growing hardness in Hutch's lap. Hutch had stifled a groan, then returned the favor by running one finger from the tender spot behind Starsky's ear and down the tendon at the side of his partner's neck, grinning at the shudder his touch produced.

"Turn the key and get us out of here," he'd heard Starsky growl huskily. "Or we're gonna end up coming out to the whole damn Department."

Chuckling, Hutch had transferred his hand back to the ignition, and started the car.

Somehow, despite the excitement, Starsky had managed to drop into sleep before they left the warehouse parking lot. More than a little envious of both Starsky's passenger status and his ability to embrace sleep so quickly and completely, Hutch nevertheless eased his car through the city streets with particular care, to ensure he wouldn't disturb his precious cargo.

Eventually, however, they arrived at the station. With that uncanny instinct Starsky possessed even in his sleep, he woke as soon as the car bumped into the parking lot, though Hutch did his best to all but slither into the driveway. As Hutch pulled the sedan into a spot and finally shut off the engine, Starsky extended his arms in a luxurious stretch, unfortunately interrupted by a wince as the movement met his back. Not even bothering to see who was watching, Hutch reached over to rub the affected area, then squeezed his partner's shoulder and got out of the car. He, too, winced as he stretched his long legs, feeling the effects of both the long siege and the rigorous chase.

"Damn," Starsky moaned as he followed suit. "Gettin' too old for this, Hutch."

"You and me both," Hutch agreed. He swiped one shirt sleeve across his sweaty forehead, knowing he was smearing his face with dirt but not caring, and led the way across the lot. "Come on," he urged. "We'll make short work of this, I promise. Then home, shower, and bed."

"Yeah, yeah," Starsky muttered as he followed his partner across the dark and silent street to the equally deserted station entrance. "Our luck, Dobey'll decide to send us somewhere like Pine Lake or that Playboy Island paradise." He unleashed an enormous yawn as Hutch held open the door to the building. "Seems like every vacation we get involves some group more whacked out than half the bums on our beat."

"I know, I know," Hutch sighed, struggling to keep his tone sympathetic. He loved Starsky, more than anyone or anything, but on extended stake-outs, the good humor and patience of both men tended to thin. In this particular instance, they had stretched as slender and taut as a spider web. They'd ended up snapping at each other for minor transgressions, and finally resorted to silence as a way to soothe their emotional irritation.

It was a tactic Hutch reverted to now, as they trudged down the hall, dodging other weary souls who'd had the poor luck to find themselves at Metro at 9:00 on a Sunday night. Without speaking, they mutually elected the elevator over the stairs and stood slumped against the smudged walls as it groaned its way to the fifth floor.

Hutch was already shedding his jacket as he shoved open the squadroom door. The August heat was smothering, and the laboring air conditioner had finally given up the fight to keep up. The air in the squadroom was even more oppressive than outside, exacerbated by the permanently sealed windows and the heat's rise to the fifth floor. Hutch blinked at the pungent mixture of stale coffee and detective sweat, then set his mind and his nostrils on neutral and headed straight for his chair, determined to focus only on getting the damned paperwork done so he and Starsky could escape. He tossed his jacket on the back of the chair, glanced down at his blotter, then froze.

A single, ominous message lay in the center of the stained green surface, written in Minnie's precise handwriting:

Hutch--call your sister immediately. Urgent. If not home, try St. John's Hospital.

He was vaguely aware of Starsky plopping into the chair opposite him, humming hoarsely in a throat scratched raw by lack of sleep, flipping through his own messages. Through a weird kind of fog, he saw his partner glance up and frown in concern, then ask in a voice that echoed eerily, "Hutch? What's wrong?"

He shook his head and picked up the message, then extended it to Starsky, who read it and looked up quizzically. "What d'ya think happened?"

Hutch shrugged with a casualness he didn't feel and that he knew didn't fool Starsky at all. "I don't know," he said pensively. "Mom, maybe, or--"

He didn't finish the sentence, and as his voice trailed off, he met Starsky's increasingly worried gaze. "Stop looking like that," he ordered, running one hand through his hair.

"What?" Starsky objected mildly. "You think you can't be worried about your dad just because of last summer?"

Last summer, Hutch thought, as he took the message back and absently rolled it into a narrow pink tube. You mean when he looked at both of us as if we were something he'd scraped off the bottom of the boat?

His worry intensifying, Starsky watched as his partner's eyes clouded with a familiar mix of distance and pain. It had been almost a year since Hutch had told his parents about his and Starsky's relationship. Well, told his father really, since a mixture of Cathy's enthusiasm and his mother's sharp mind had led Miranda Hutchinson to the correct conclusion on her own. Typically, Miranda had had mixed feelings on the subject; while she loved her son and was glad he'd found someone who treasured him the way Starsky did, her loyalty to her husband was equally steadfast. As a result, her response to Hutch's disclosure had been supportive, but necessarily subtle.

Richard's, however, had been neither, and since then Hutch had contacted his parents only once. He gathered information about their well-being and whereabouts from Cathy, and occasionally his mother called him to see how he was and keep him updated on his father's latest stand on him...and Starsky...and the "relationship."

As recently as last week, the news had not been good.

"Okay, Mom," Starsky had heard from the bedroom as he entered Hutch's apartment, arms full of ingredients for a romantic Friday night dinner. "No, Mom, come on. I'm fine. Yeah. I'll…talk to you later."

At the hollow tone in his partner's voice, Starsky dumped the grocery bags on the kitchen table and headed straight for the bedroom, just as Hutch cradled the receiver. He stared down at the phone in his lap for a moment, then returned it to the nightstand as if it were made of fragile china--or as if he were trying to restrain himself from tossing it across the room.

"Hey." Starsky tossed his jacket to one side and knee-walked across the bed, to press himself against Hutch's side and wrap one arm around the slumped shoulders. "What's goin' on?"

Hutch waved a hand toward the phone, mouth opening and closing, then uttered a harsh, humorless laugh. "The weather's great in Minnesota," he muttered.

"Say what?" Starsky said, confused. "What're you talkin' about?"

"The weather's great," Hutch repeated, rubbing his palms against his thighs. Under Starsky's arm, his shoulders rose and fell in a sigh. "I figured Dad would be out on the boat, so this would be a good time to give Mom a call, maybe have a real conversation for once."

"Okay..." Starsky said cautiously, waiting for the rest of the story. Hutch was silent for a moment, hands now fiddling with the phone cord that dangled over the side of the nightstand. Starsky let him fidget for a moment, then reached over and grasped the long lean hands in both of his own, squeezing gently. "Hutch." Hutch finally looked at him. "What?"

"So she's telling me all about Cathy and Craig, and how the little guy is doing," Hutch recited dully. "And then she tells me how she can't wait to see them, see how much Brian's grown when they come for the Labor Day picnic."

Starsky tightened the grip on his partner's hands.

"She just...she just stopped, Starsk, and I...geez, I could practically see her face. She was just appalled that she'd even brought it up." He gave another short, sharp laugh. "So, I made this crack, you know, 'Oh, I guess I'm not welcome this year, huh?'" His voice wobbled, and he cleared his throat. "And she just said, 'No, I'm afraid you're right'."

His hands curled into fists Starsky knew were white-knuckled.

"It's not that it was really a surprise," Hutch went on, and Starsky could hear him trying to control the emotion in his voice. "And I don't think I really wanted to be there, either. It's just--"

"You didn't expect it to bother you so much," Starsky guessed.

Hutch's hands turned over, gripped Starsky's. He nodded.

"It's the first time," he said quietly, in a tone that broke Starsky's heart. "No matter what--after I joined the force, after Vanessa left--they still wanted me there. Probably for appearance's sake more than anything else, but still--"

"I know, babe," Starsky whispered, pressing a kiss against his neck. Hutch freed his hands, put an arm around Starsky's shoulders, and pulled him close. For a moment neither spoke, then Hutch's chest rose and fell in a resolute sigh.

"Screw 'em." Starsky heard the words above his head and felt them rumble through Hutch's chest under his ear. "We'll have our own celebration right here."

Starsky had hugged him back, willing to collude in the charade that it was all okay and dealt with, knowing without a doubt it wasn't.

        Starsky studied Hutch now, the crease between his brows, the long fingers rolling the message into an ever-smaller tube.

"Hutch?" he said gently. "You wanna...call 'em from here, or wait 'til we get home?"

Hutch slowly unrolled the pink tube and stared down at the cryptic, foreboding words. Without answering, he lifted the receiver of his phone and rapidly punched in Cathy's number.

One ring. Two. Click.

"Hi, this is Craig and Cathy," his brother-in-law's voice said. "Sorry we can't come to the phone right now--"

He hung up, stared at the paper a while longer, then lifted the receiver and dialed again.

Ring. Ring. Click.

"This is Ken Hutchinson."

He punched in the code numbers that allowed him to play back his messages, remembering when the machine had driven him nuts, grateful now that he didn't have to wait until he got home to see what news had been left for him during the day. Rapidly, he ran through a message from Huggy, a telemarketer, and his landlord informing him the power would be off in the building the next day. Then Cathy's voice, strained and anxious.

"Ken, it's Cathy," she said unnecessarily; he wondered inanely if she'd thought he couldn't recognize her voice. "Where are you? I've been trying to reach you for hours. I don't want to leave anything on this machine. Listen, I'll call the station, but just in case I can't reach you…call me or Mom at St. John's. We're in the ICU waiting room…. I think Collette or Rita will be on duty, so just have one of them come get us." She paused, and when she spoke again he could hear the tears in her voice. "It's important, Ken. Please...call as soon as you can, all right? Love you." Her voice drifted away and he heard his mother say something he couldn't make out, then a click.

Call me or Mom. So the emergency was his father. He pressed the switch hook briefly, then dialed the number for the hospital, not stopping to dwell on how rapidly it returned to his memory.

"St. John's Hospital, how may I direct your call?"

"Intensive Care nurses' station, please."

He began to roll the pink paper in one hand again, the other tapping on the phone, aware of Starsky's concerned expression. He glanced up, flashed his partner what he hoped was a reassuring smile, then returned his attention to the phone.

"ICU."

"Rita?"

"Yes."

"Ken Hutchinson," Hutch said, now smoothing the piece of paper on his blotter. "My sister's been trying to reach me; can you--?"

"Oh, Ken, thank goodness! Cathy's been half-crazy, wondering where you were," Rita Delano said, her husky voice ringing with relief. "Hold on a sec; I think she's down in the waiting room."

There was yet another click, then the sound of ersatz music wafted into the phone. Wincing, Hutch glanced at Starsky again, to be met with a comforting wink and a brief squeeze of his knee under the table. Smiling despite himself, he switched the phone to his other shoulder, rubbing his gritty eyes and smothering yet another yawn.

"Ken?"

"Yeah, Cath, it's me...what's going on?"

Rapidly, she explained what had happened. Staring at the message slip, Hutch began to fold it, first in half, then quarters, then eighths. When that was done, he unfolded it again and tore along the creases until he had a tiny pile of confetti scattered on the blotter's surface. As Cathy finished, a familiar hand came into his blurred vision and slowly, gently, scooped the paper away, then gave his hand a quick pat and withdrew once again.

"Yeah," he said to his sister, speaking for the first time in several minutes. "Okay, Cath. I'll...I'll call you back and let you know when I'll be there."

"As soon as possible," she pleaded. "I know it's--"

"I said I'll be there," Hutch cut her off. Exhausted and taken aback by the news, his voice was harsher than he had intended. He softened his tone and repeated, "I'll be there, Cath. I promise. Tell Mom not to worry."

"Okay," she said quietly. "Be careful. I'll talk to you soon."

He cradled the receiver a final time, letting his hand rest on the black plastic that was warm and slick from his damp skin. After a moment, he raised his eyes, to meet once again the full force of Starsky's concern. For a few beats, neither spoke, then Starsky said softly,

"What's happened?"

"Dad's in Intensive Care," Hutch explained, worrying at the corner of his blotter now that the message slip had been confiscated. "Cathy says some patient apparently had a psychotic break and attacked him." He frowned at the blotter as if he'd never seen it before. "Multiple stab wounds, some pretty close to his heart and lungs. He lost a lot of blood. They--" He looked back at his partner. "Cathy says it looks pretty bad."

From across the table, Starsky watched as Hutch's hands began to tremble and his heart constricted. He remembered vividly their last encounter with Hutch's father, and he knew precisely what was going on inside Hutch's head. An hour ago, no one could've gotten Hutch on a plane to Duluth with a loaded gun in one hand and a million dollars in the other. But stab wounds and massive blood loss had a way of changing one's perspective. Despite Hutch's firm resolve that he'd never set foot in "Hutchinson Manor" until his father welcomed both of them there, Starsky knew a part of him had never stopped hoping for reconciliation. He looked back at Hutch's face. The furrow between his eyebrows had deepened, accented by twin creases beside his mouth that made him look older than his years.

Starsky decided to take matters into his own, less conflicted hands. "C'mon," he ordered, pushing his own messages aside and shoving back his chair. "Get your jacket."

Eyes still distant, Hutch rose automatically, grabbed the jacket from the back of his chair, and followed Starsky out the door. It wasn't until they were in his car, Starsky at the wheel, that he seemed to blink and register his surroundings. "Where're we going?"

"Home," Starsky replied succinctly. "We'll pack a few things and head for the airport. We can call Dobey and your sister from there."

Hutch leaned back against the headrest, closed his eyes, and allowed himself a sigh that was half exhaustion, half relief. Trust Starsky, he thought, a smile teasing his lips despite his worry. He'll take care of it.

**********

Several hours later, Hutch was staring out the airplane window, watching the shadowed landscape change from a firefly village to a doll-sized city, complete with miniature cars and the occasional human coming into view. He yawned again, feeling his tired jaw muscles pop, and leaned his forehead against the cool glass, wondering what he would find when he got home. Visits with his father were always tense at best, and outright hostile when his father was at his sarcastic worst. Exhausted, he couldn't prevent his father's critical words from invading his thoughts. Time had lessened their ability to cut him deeply, but they still inflicted wounds that, like paper cuts, stubbornly refused to heal and continued to hurt in an interfering, aching way.

"You weren't thinking? Yes, I suspect as usual, you were not."

"No, that's not good enough...do it again."

"Isn't it time you gave up this thinly veiled attempt to revisit your adolescent machismo and started a real life?"

He shook his head, trying to chase the thoughts away. Richard was injured, possibly fatally, and his mother and sister needed him there. This kind of recrimination and rumination is useless, he told himself firmly, then gave an ironic half-laugh as he once again recognized his father's words.

"Whuh?" came a woozy voice beside him. "Wh'zit, Hutsch? Wha'sup?"

He glanced over at the dark head that rested mere inches from his shoulder, yearning to ease it into contact, to run his hands through the unruly curls, to kiss the lips that were so slack and tempting in sleep. But the plane had touched down and was beginning to taxi, and as the cabin lights came on, the usual eager beavers sprang to their feet and started grabbing their luggage from the overhead bins. His hometown was a small one, and the Duluth airport the closest stop for business and casual travelers. He couldn't take the chance of someone spotting him and Starsky exchanging so much as a tender glance.

Like what Elizabeth saw, in the park. Without intending, without even stopping to consider, he and his partner's affection for one another had shone out to the astute observer, and been captured superbly on film. If a stranger could see it, so could anyone who knew Hutch at all, and right now he didn't need the kinds of looks and sideways comments he knew would follow.

"We're almost at the gate, Starsk," he said gently to his bleary-eyed partner, who passed his hands down his face. "Might want to get your stuff together so we can get out of this thing when the time comes."

Starsky gave an enormous yawn; despite himself, Hutch chuckled.

"Whuh?" Starsky blinked at him.

"I think I've seen more of your tonsils in the last twelve hours than in all the time we've known each other," Hutch teased. "I swear that jaw of yours is double-jointed."

From the half-lidded eyes came a sudden gleam. "It is," Starsky responded huskily. "And it's all for you, babe."

Hutch blushed. Well, he admitted to himself with another sheepish chuckle, you set yourself up for that one.

**********

The trek off the plane was predictably tedious, but since they had carried on their bags, they were soon in a rental car and headed toward the hospital. Now awake, Starsky had taken the wheel while Hutch navigated. Since Hutch had done all the driving on the stake-out and hadn't slept at all on the plane, it was his turn to gape with exhausted yawns.

From the corner of his eye, he saw Starsky glance over at him, then a hand curled itself around his knee. "Why don't you catch a few winks?" Starsky suggested solicitously. "I got this under control."

"Starsk--" Hutch began to protest, but Starsky interrupted.

"This highway to the Cedar Crest exit, right on Cedar, two miles up the road, hospital on the left," he recited. "Piece of cake."

Hutch opened his mouth again, but his objection was smothered in yet another cavernous yawn. "Just for a minute," he relented as he leaned back against the headrest. "Wake me up as soon as we get there."

The hand around his knee squeezed once.

"Promise," Starsky assured him. "Now close those baby blues before I close 'em for you."

Hutch obeyed.

**********

He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake.

It's cold.

Where oh where oh where can we be safe?

Go back.

Go back home.

**********

It was Hutch's turn to come awake, as the rental car slowed and turned into the hospital parking lot. Pushing himself upright, he passed both hands down his face, scowling at the gooey taste the brief nap had left in his mouth. He turned toward Starsky.

"Hey, you got any gum?"

Focused on pulling into a parking space, Starsky merely shook his head.

"Breath mint? Anything?" When Starsky shook his head again, Hutch sighed. "Great. My mouth feels like the greater Bay City sewer division...nice way to greet my mom and sister."

Shifting the car into park and turning off the engine, Starsky chuckled softly. "Hate to tell you this, babe," he teased. "But after a forty-eight-hour stake-out, bad breath is the least of our worries."

"Yeah, I guess so," Hutch admitted, climbing out of the car. "God, I don't think I've ever wanted a shower so badly in my life."

"Yeah, me, too," Starsky agreed as they climbed the steps to the hospital entrance. "Which way?"

Still trying to somehow get the gritty feeling out of his mouth, Hutch turned automatically to the left and led the way to the Intensive Care Unit. Just before they reached the nurses' station, they arrived at a small waiting room, which held a number of comfortable chairs and lamps shedding soft pools of soothing light--and Hutch's mother and sister.

Cathy sat poised on the edge of a lavender loveseat, holding her mother's hand tightly in one of her own. For once, the bright, summery feeling that always seemed to stay with her had fled. She wore a subdued gray blouse and matching slacks, and her hair was pulled back into a no-nonsense ponytail. Fatigue had smudged dark circles under her red-rimmed eyes, and she had gnawed any trace of lipstick from her lips long ago.

She glanced up and saw them, her face lighting in a mixture of relief and fear. Apparently seeing the look on her daughter's face, Miranda turned, then rose and took a trembling step toward Hutch. In two long strides, Hutch was at his mother's side. "Hey, Mom," he said tenderly, folding her into his arms.

He was amazed how good it felt to hold her and feel her return embrace, to inhale the familiar fragrance of her cologne and shampoo. He hadn't realized how much he'd missed it, or how profoundly it had affected him to know that losing this contact had been a matter of force, not choice. He kissed her cheek and murmured, "How're you holding up?"

"All right." She drew back and gave him the tremulous smile of the stalwart doctor's wife.

For a moment, Hutch frowned, wondering where he'd seen that expression before. Then it struck him: it was the bravado of every cop's wife or girlfriend he'd encountered in hospital waiting rooms, the look that reassured even as it begged for reassurance, for some sign that when the doctor returned, it would be to tell them things would be okay.

It was that, more than anything else, that told him just how grave the situation was, and he pulled her close again.

He felt a light touch on his back and glanced over his shoulder to find Starsky watching him. Without words, he understood that his partner had seen the same thing in Miranda's eyes. She leaned against him, not crying, not even talking, just leaning into his strength. He tightened his arms around her.

In a way it felt strange, to be holding his mother like this, comforting her instead of the other way around. She had always been the strongest of them all. Richard's standard method of dealing with crises was to either give instructions for fixing the situation immediately, or avoid it altogether. Miranda, on the other hand, had been listener, sympathizer, and mother confessor, and had done it all with a mixture of warmth, poise, and common sense that had always helped ease the children's pain. The only time Hutch had ever seen her break down was when her father had died--and even then the storm was brief, swept quickly away by her ingrained need to soothe her children and to care for the others who had gathered for James' memorial service.

"How's Dad?" he asked at length. He felt her shudder, once.

"The last time they came out...he's mostly stable and he's breathing on his own, but he's still not conscious and they're not sure about some of the wounds around his spine," she replied, in a voice so low he could barely hear her. She shuddered again. "I told him; the hospital told him--" Her voice faltered. Beside her, Cathy picked up the story.

"Nobody had seen this woman for weeks," she told the two detectives, her voice rough-edged from the long vigil. "They knew she wasn't taking her medication--she had to go to the hospital every two weeks for it; that was part of her release requirements. The police went to the house once, and they said they could tell she was there, but she wouldn't answer the door." She sank back down onto the loveseat. Hutch gently guided his mother back into her chair and perched on the armrest, one arm still around her shoulders. "So Saturday morning, Dad called over there, just to see if he could get her on the phone, and he said she picked up and started singing some Christmas song." She shook her head. "Then he went into his office, got his bag, and went right over there like some...knight in shining armor or something."

From the corner of his eye, Hutch saw Starsky repress a fond smile, and grudgingly admitted this was one more thing he and his father had in common--an inherent inability to ignore a call for help.

"Now, Cathy, don't talk like that," his mother was saying, her voice gently reproving. "You know your father--he's always been that way. He was making house calls long after everyone else decided they wouldn't set foot out of their offices."

"You're right, Mom, I'm sorry," Cathy said, instantly contrite. "At any rate, we're not completely sure what happened, but she apparently met him at the door and attacked him with a knife or something. The neighbors saw the whole thing and called the police right away."

"Thank God," Miranda murmured fervently.

"So they got there in time to get Dad to the hospital, but not in time to catch her," Cathy went on. "The neighbors said they saw her run into the woods, but the police searched all weekend and never did locate her."

Hutch looked at Starsky. Their eyes met, and he knew they were thinking the same thing: it looked like they'd be darkening Jason Brady's door once again, and he was certain the local sheriff would be less than thrilled to see them. He tightened the arm around his mother's shoulders.

"Don't worry, Mom," he assured her. "Once I've had a chance to see Dad, we'll go see if we can help out."

"Ken, I don't know if that's a good idea--" Miranda began, again in soft reproach. Then she stopped short as she took her first good look at her disheveled son and his equally unkempt partner. "You two look dreadful!" she exclaimed. "What on earth--? Cathy said you were on some kind of stake-out when she called the first time?"

"Yeah," Hutch replied, trying unsuccessfully to swallow a yawn. "Some guy we've had an arrest warrant for, for weeks, but he kept dodging us. So we finally rounded up as many cops as we could and surrounded--discreetly--every place we thought he might show up."

"'Course he showed up on our watch," Starsky chimed in. "So that meant we got to dust down the scene and do all the paperwork."

"Well, after you've seen your father, I want you to go straight to the house and get a shower and some rest," Miranda ordered. "No, I mean it," she insisted, as Hutch opened his mouth to protest. "Your father's been unconscious since they brought him back from surgery, and he'll be woozy when he does wake up. You go home, and we'll call you if anything changes."

Hutch hesitated, the "good son" part of him thinking he should stay and join the vigil with Cathy and his mother. But he was sweaty and filthy and dead on his feet, and the brief doze in the car had only highlighted how tired he really was. Besides, it gave his mother a chance to take care of someone, to overcome the terrible sense of helplessness he'd seen in her eyes. He shrugged and kissed her on the forehead.

"Okay, Mom, you got it." Rising to his feet, he slipped out of his jacket and draped it over her shoulders. "Here, you take this. It's damned cold in here. Where's Dad's room?"

Miranda glanced at her watch, pulling the jacket tighter around the pink shell top she wore. "We're only supposed to visit on the hour," she said. "But they've been making exceptions, and I'm sure with it being you--"

As if on cue, a sleek dark head poked into the waiting room, followed by a petite nurse dressed in a crisp white uniform. "Hey, Miranda," Rita Delano said quietly. "I saw Ken come in, and I thought he might like to see Richard as soon as possible."

"Even though it's ten 'til four?" Miranda teased with a tired smile.

"You bet," Rita said. "Times like these, families are more important than rules." She inclined her head toward Hutch. "Come on, Ken. I'll show you where your dad's room is."

Hutch took a step toward the door, then paused. Turning, his eyes sought Starsky's.

Starsky read the maelstrom of emotions in that look. Hutch was worried about what he'd find, worried that the chance to mend things with his father might be gone forever...and yet also concerned that his father would wake and nothing would have changed. He'd still be the stubborn man who'd declared his son and his partner "diseased," while treating a lesbian girl with the tenderest of care. The rejection had wounded Hutch deeply, though the reality had taken a while to sink in. Starsky remembered all the times he'd woken in the night to find Hutch's side of the bed empty and his partner sitting in the window seat or out in the greenhouse, simply staring into space and, as he said, "absorbing" his banishment from his father's life.

Families are more important than rules, the nurse had said. That had been taken for granted in the Starsky household; many times, as now, he wished fervently the same had been true for Hutch.

"You go ahead, babe," he said encouragingly, not caring who heard the endearment or what they thought. In a way, it was a relief to be here, where Cathy and Miranda both knew and the nurse didn't really matter. "I'll be here when you get back, and then we'll get you home."

Hutch kept his eyes on Starsky's for a moment, his shoulders slowly straightening as if he were drawing strength from his lover's look. Then he smiled tenderly and turned and followed Rita out of the room.

A second later, Starsky found himself in Cathy's arms. "It's good to see you, Dave," she murmured. "These aren't the best of circumstances, but still--"

Miranda's hand found his, her cool, smooth skin pressing against his palm. "Thank you for bringing him," she said gratefully. "I know this can't be easy for you, but I also know he needs you right now."

"Yeah, he does," Starsky agreed. "And you gotta know, Mrs. Hutchinson, that's where I'll be--always."

Her hand squeezed his again, and a smile touched her lips. For a moment, Starsky saw his partner in the affection in her eyes. "I know," she said simply. "Now why don't you sit down, and I'll see if we can round you up a cup of coffee."

"Sounds great," Starsky said, easing into a chair without protesting. Like Hutch, he realized Miranda needed some kind of distraction from the terrible waiting.

Miranda slipped out of the room, and a moment later he heard her cultured voice making inquiries at the nurses' station. Starsky felt Cathy hitch one hip onto the arm of his chair, but she was silent. After a moment, he looked up, to meet her level gaze.

"How is he, really?" she asked bluntly.

Starsky sighed. "He's fine--most of the time," he said honestly. "He's gotten so used to not thinking about your father that he goes for weeks and it never crosses his mind. Then suddenly, there'll be somethin'--could be anything--and it hits him again."

Cathy shook her head. "Dad was impossible for weeks after you guys left last summer," she said tightly. "You couldn't look at him sideways without getting your head taken off, and he knows how to do it, believe me."

Starsky nodded, having experienced both Richard's wrath and that of his partner, who knew how to wield a sharp word when he was particularly angry or hurt.

Cathy closed one hand around Starsky's and gazed off into the distance, her forehead gathering into a thoughtful frown. "It's like...he thought we had betrayed him," she said slowly. "Not me so much as Mom, and never mind that she'd only found out a few days before."

"You're sayin' he's not the most forgiving guy in the world, huh?" Starsky observed with an ironic smile. Cathy laughed.

"Boy, you can say that again." She squeezed his hand and then sobered, sighing. "There's a big part of me that hopes this'll turn out like some movie of the week." She glanced down at him with a rueful smile. "You know, where the rigid patriarch has a life-changing experience and wholeheartedly embraces his prodigal son."

Starsky snorted. Both were silent for a moment, then Starsky reached over and patted the hand that held his. "If you wanna know the truth," he said confidentially. "I think Hutch would like the same thing."

**********

There's no way.

Hutch stood at the doorway of his father's hospital room. He'd stopped short at the threshold and now seemed stuck there, caught between his eternal image of his father and the real-life picture of the man lying in the bed.

Never in his entire life had Hutch seen his father ill--in fact, he'd rarely seen him recline. Richard was an active man, one who valued doing over being. He was an early riser even on weekends and holidays, and one who rousted his children soon after sunrise to do chores or take a day trip to the lake, relatives' homes, or a "cultural experience." He loathed indolence and was impatient with his children's minor colds and flu, questioning their symptoms until Miranda produced objective evidence that they were indeed ill. Now he lay amidst a spider's web of wires, tubes, and beeping machines, eyes closed, active limbs idle on crisp white sheets. Hutch's vision swam for a moment, as his mind briefly revisited the similar scene after Starsky had been shot, then he firmly reminded himself to stay in the here and now.

He became aware of Rita eyeing him curiously; flashing her a self-conscious smile, he stepped into the room, letting the door swing closed behind him.

He let his eyes travel over the paraphernalia first, re-familiarizing himself with IV bottles, tubes and gleaming poles, and machines with their mysterious lights and numbers. Then, with a deep breath, wishing he'd brought Starsky along, he took a step closer to the bed and turned his attention to his father's face.

Even in the slackness of unconsciousness, Richard's expression retained much of its steely sternness. The familiar furrow, the same one Hutch saw in the mirror every morning, remained etched between his brows. The corners of his mouth pulled down in a slight frown, as if he were disapproving of something in his sleep. His hair was smooth and combed into its usual style; clearly Miranda had used her husband's grooming as another way to be useful. It had been silvering for some time, but for the first time, Hutch saw more gray than gold in the carefully trimmed and arranged strands, and it was particularly apparent in the nearly white beard Richard had grown in the last year. Combined with his lips, which had somehow lost their trademark tightness, a stranger might perceive him as approachable, even vulnerable.

But Hutch's gut refused to be fooled. Even as he tried to move closer to the bed, his insides rebelled, somehow expecting Richard's cold blue eyes to fly open as he sat up and inquired peevishly what on earth Hutch was doing there.

He chuckled ironically to himself, appreciating the inanity of his fear. He could move into the maw of a dark alley with an armed felon shooting at him, but he couldn't approach his father without the old apprehension gnawing at him.

He let his eyes rest for one more moment on his father's face, then turned and left the room.

The atmosphere in the waiting room was less funereal than it had been when he left. Starsky was sipping from a cup of real coffee--one advantage of waiting in a small town hospital--and another cup sat steaming in a brightly colored mug on the table. Cathy and her mother were talking with Rita, and their faces and voices had become significantly more animated and hopeful.

"Rita says Dad was moving his hands and feet the last time she went in to check on him," Cathy said breathlessly as Hutch neared them.

"It's early yet," Rita cautioned. "But it's a better sign than we had twenty-four hours ago."

Miranda took a deep breath, and Hutch saw some of the stark fear drop from her eyes. "Now," she said firmly, turning to Hutch and squaring her petite shoulders as she re-assumed her maternal role. "I want you to drink this nice warm cup of coffee, and then I want you and Dave to go on out to the house. Take a hot shower, get something to eat if you want. Throw what you're wearing now in the laundry room--Belinda's coming out to help with some of the housekeeping, and she'll make sure they're clean by the end of the day." She raised a warning finger as Hutch opened his mouth. "Don't even try to argue with me," she declared, then her voice softened. "You're exhausted now, and you'll be a mess if you don't get some sleep."

"Mom, I really feel like I should stay until Dad regains consciousness."

"Listen to me, Ken." Suddenly her eyes swam with tears, despite her obvious effort to restrain them. "I have no idea how your father's going to react to your being here when he wakes up, and I just don't have the energy for one of your battles royal." She laid her hands on his shoulders, and her eyes met his in a level gaze. "I need one of you with your head on straight so that doesn't happen, and I don't think your father will be in any shape to take that responsibility."

Knowing she was right, Hutch nodded wordlessly and took the house keys Cathy had pulled from her purse. He hugged them both once more and kissed his mother on the cheek.

"Don't worry, Mom," he said softly. "I promise I'll try to be a grownup."

She laughed, and Hutch felt some of the tension in his gut ease. "I know you will," she told him. "Now go."

**********

Over an hour later, the sky beginning to lighten with the dawn, Hutch lay on the bed in his old room with a heartfelt sigh. Both he and Starsky had dropped their dirty clothes in the laundry room off the kitchen, then enjoyed the unusual freedom of strolling upstairs completely unclothed. Unfortunately, neither of them had the energy to do anything but hug briefly, enjoying the feel of skin on skin, and exchange a few kisses before going to separate showers.

Now, clean and dry, Hutch could feel his exhaustion swallowing him whole. He could barely keep his eyes open, even for the sight of Starsky sprawled beside him on the bed, wearing nothing but a towel draped around his hips. He ran regretful fingers over his partner's taut muscles and the skin he loved to touch, then leaned over and kissed the full lips. "I hate to disappoint you, babe," he mumbled. "But as luscious as you look, and as much as I'd like to have my way with you, I think I'll fall asleep before my head even hits the pillow." He yawned, struggling to keep his eyelids up. "Cathy said the blue guest room was all ready. She called Belinda, and she ran in and put some fresh linens on and aired the room out."

Starsky smiled and ran his hand down the center of Hutch's chest. "I think you're forgettin' somethin'," he murmured, discarding the towel and sliding closer to his partner. "There's no one here but you and me."

Startled awake for a moment, Hutch realized Starsky was right. For once, the ghost of Richard's presence had been thwarted from entering the room, and there was no one to catch or condemn them. A smile teased the corner of his lips as he wrapped his arms around Starsky and pulled him inward until their bodies were pressed together from head to toe. He inhaled the clean scent of Starsky's hair; pressing a kiss into the curls, he felt an answering gesture anoint the sensitive hollow at the side of his neck, just below his ear. A slight shudder went through him; he was aware of his own wish that they both had a little--make that a lot--more energy. But almost before the thought left his mind, his eyes closed a final time. Nuzzling his head on top of Starsky's, he dropped instantly into the welcome nothingness of sleep.

**********

Who's there who's there who's there?
It's her.
She's back.
She knows.
Oh, dear God, what is this? Blood?
What have you done?
What have I done?

**********

Starsky awoke late the next afternoon, disoriented and suffering from jet lag and a serious stake-out hangover. He lay motionless on the pillows for several minutes, blinking at the unfamiliar ceiling, the noticeable lack of sound, and the smell of sheets that bore the distinct scent of laundry detergent and very slight traces of Hutch. He blinked, yawned, and rolled over to inspect the rest of the room, as he remembered where they were and why they were there. Yawning again and dragging a hand through his rumpled curls, he staggered to his feet and shoved his arms into the robe Hutch had left across the foot of the bed. Walking through the hall and down the stairs, he followed the sound of his partner's voice until he reached the kitchen.

The vision before him brought a real smile to his lips and chased some of the weary cobwebs from his brain. Bare-chested, Hutch leaned against the wall near the large bay windows that looked onto the Hutchinsons' back deck, telephone cradled on his shoulder as he nursed a cup of coffee. He'd pulled the curtains wide open, and the sunlight flowing in turned his hair to brilliant gold and washed away the gray tint that had tinged his skin last night. For a moment, he looked like the Hutch Starsky had first seen at the Academy--half-confident, half-uncertain, with his eyes set on a goal he was determined to reach but wasn't sure he could. He spotted Starsky, gave him a mouth-watering smile that lit up his eyes, and nodded toward the kitchen counter, where a fresh pot of coffee sat.

Feeling refreshed in that way only his partner's love could bring, Starsky filled a bright yellow mug and sank down on a chair near the kitchen table. Hutch winked at him, then returned to his conversation.

"Yeah," he said, nodding as if the person on the other end could see him. "That sounds a lot better, Cath." He was silent for a moment, and Starsky could hear bits and pieces of Cathy's voice through the receiver. "Well, maybe you can talk Mom into coming back and getting some sleep this afternoon." He took a sip of coffee and shook his head. "No, I think we'll come by later, maybe early this evening. I want to go over and talk to Jason, see if we can get some information and help out with--" Cathy's voice interrupted and Hutch chuckled, shaking his head again. "No, I'm not worried about 'butting in.' I figure he owes us, after last time."

Rolling his eyes, Starsky nodded in silent agreement and Hutch flashed him another smile, though this one was less hearty than the first.

"Yeah," he said, pushing himself off the wall and moving toward the kitchen counter to refill his cup. As he passed, he trailed one hand across the back of Starsky's neck and chuckled again at the shiver his touch produced. "Yeah...Well, if you don't come back here, leave us a message and let us know what time would be best to come out...yeah. Tell Mom I love her and we'll see her later." He nodded again, then added, "See if you can get her to eat something, huh? Yeah. Love you, too."

He hung up the phone, then brought his cup to the table and sat down with a sigh. Starsky sat back, drank him in for a moment as if he were a stimulant stronger than the caffeine in his cup, then leaned over and kissed him gently, tasting coffee and an undernote of toothpaste. Hutch's lips moved under his own and a hand sought him, nudging aside the bathrobe and stroking gently up his thigh. The kiss deepened, and came to a reluctant end with an unspoken promise of things to come when the world slowed down around them. Hutch briefly touched his forehead to Starsky's, pressed his lips to his partner's nose, and withdrew his hand.

"'Morning," he said somewhat shakily.

"Yeah," Starsky replied. His voice wasn't so steady either.

Hutch smiled and ran a hand down Starsky's cheek. "I'm glad you're here," he murmured. "Though, I sure as hell wish the circumstances were better."

"Yeah," Starsky repeated. He turned his head to kiss the fingers caressing his cheek. Visions of divesting both of them of their clothes and making love in the gentle golden sunshine crowded into his head, and he made a deliberate reach for the sugar bowl, willing the white grains to chase the image away.

"So, how's your dad?" he inquired, dumping sugar into his cup.

"Better," Hutch replied, taking a sip of coffee, his eyes drifting back to the perfectly tended back yard. "He's been moving more, and they think they're starting to see some signs that he's coming out of it. They set up a bed for Mom in his room and found an empty room for Cathy, so they managed to get a little bit of sleep after we left."

Starsky nodded again and they were both silent as the house hummed quietly around them, letting the caffeine work its magic on their taxed systems.

"Did I hear you say somethin' about visiting your local sheriff?" Starsky asked at length, setting aside his cup and feeling measurably better.

It was Hutch's turn to nod, as he rose from his chair and took their cups to the sink. "I want to see what he knows about this woman and what they're doing now to try to track her down." Rinsing both cups and placing them in the dishwasher, he went on, "He might be a little less hostile since we helped him out last year."

"Dreamer," Starsky snorted, and Hutch shrugged philosophically.

"Well, maybe you're right," he agreed. "But it's worth a shot."

The doorbell rang, and there was the sound of a key in the front door and the call of a woman's voice. "Miranda? Cathy?"

"That would be Belinda," Hutch surmised. "Come on, partner, let's get you dressed and go to town."

The vision of sun-drenched lovemaking intruded again. Starsky shook it away, but couldn't resist grabbing a handful of Hutch's jean-covered behind as they left the kitchen.

"Hands," Hutch chided, but leaned into the grip for a moment before moving away. "C'mon, we got work to do."

**********

Despite his confident words to Starsky and his sister, Hutch felt a nibble of apprehension as Starsky pulled the rental car in front of the sheriff's office and cut the engine. Though it was true they'd helped Brady track down the misguided preacher who'd been responsible for a number of assaults in the lakeside park, the accomplishment had come with a price. The minister and four of his less holy charges had targeted local homosexuals, hoping to show them the error of their ways, and Hutch had been their final victim. By the time he'd left the hospital, bearing a mercifully invisible epithet carved into his arm, the entire town knew about his and Starsky's relationship. They'd had almost a year to speculate and embellish the event and Richard's reaction, and to make matters worse, Brady had been the inadvertent witness to a tender moment between the two. Hutch was willing to bet the less-than-tolerant sheriff had relished every bit of gossip and head-shaking that had followed the detectives' departure.

Still, there was no choice but to meet the unpleasantness head on. At the top of the steps, he took a deep breath and pushed open the door.

A plump, brown-haired woman in her mid-thirties sat at the front desk, typing busily on a manual typewriter that looked as old as she was. She glanced up with a ready smile as the door opened, but the smile faltered and her eyes widened when she spotted Hutch.

"Dolores," Hutch greeted her evenly. He'd gone to high school with the young Dolores Price, who'd been a freshman when he was a senior and had looked matronly even then. She'd been a whiz at home economics and a fixture on the tennis courts and theatrical productions; word had filtered to Hutch through several sources that she'd had a crush on him for most of his senior year. On his visits back home, she'd continued to flirt with him from time to time, but now she looked at him as if he'd grown fangs and a long tail.

Reflexively, he glanced back to ensure he hadn't, then caught himself with a wry chuckle.

"We'd like to see Jason, if he's got a minute," he said politely, "to see what he's found out about the attack on my father."

His mention of the assault on Richard apparently set Dolores into a bit of a tailspin, as sympathy warred with wide-eyed tabloid curiosity on her face. She picked up the phone, set it down, half-rose from her chair, then sat again and lifted the receiver a second time.

"Never mind, Dolores," came a nasal voice from the open doorway behind her. "Send Ken and his...friend on in."

Dolores folded her hands on the desk--an awkward move, given the fact that the typewriter was in the way--and inclined her head toward the door. Giving her a charming smile, one that involved only his teeth, Hutch led Starsky past the desk to Brady's office. He could feel her eyes following them as they went, and he closed the door firmly as soon as they'd entered.

Brady, looking even more tanned and leathered than he had during their last encounter, didn't bother to lower his feet from the corner of his desk, but merely smirked around the toothpick that dangled from the corner of his mouth. "Well, hell, I owe Jimmy Drew a sawbuck," he drawled, leaning back in his chair and linking his hands behind his head. "He said you'd be here within forty-eight hours, sticking your heads in, makin' sure we do our jobs. I figured it'd take you closer to a week." The smile was ostensibly friendly, but Hutch could clearly see the contempt in his eyes.

Hutch bit back the sharp retort he wanted to make to the man's snide comments, but he didn't bother to return the smile. "Let's just cut through the crap, Jason," he said briskly. "We both know where we stand, but right now all I care about is finding the woman who attacked my father."

Brady spat the toothpick into his wastebasket and lowered his feet to the floor. "Well, that's one thing we can agree on," he said, grimness replacing the taunting tone in his voice. He lifted a folder from his desk and tossed it toward Hutch. "There's all we know at this point," he continued as Hutch opened it. "Pictures at the scene; statements from your dad's doctor, the witness, and the other neighbors; and some information from the hospital where the woman had been."

Hutch flipped through the file's contents, rapidly scanning the typed sheets and photographs. Despite his desire to remain professional, his stomach clenched at the description of his father's wounds, and he turned quickly past the photos of the blood-stained porch steps and lawn. "This her?" he asked as he came upon a photo of a young woman, who appeared to be in her mid to late thirties. She had a petite, youthful face with a catlike chin that reminded him of Cathy and his mother, and enormous eyes that peered timidly out at the camera. He studied it for a moment, committing the woman's features to memory, then passed the file to his partner.

"Yeah, that's an enlargement from her hospital ID," Brady confirmed. "Janine Perkins, age thirty-seven. Born right here, headed to Minneapolis for college when she was eighteen. Dropped out in the middle of her senior year, crazy as all get-out. Diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, locked up in the state hospital for a number of years, then transferred to the private clinic here. Released about eight months ago." He withdrew another toothpick from his desk drawer and stuck it into his mouth. "I remember when she got released. Folks were damned nervous, but she did pretty well for a while, working at that fancy specialty chocolate store on your folks' side of town."

"Then what happened?" Starsky asked, as he made his own rapid study of Janine Perkins' file.

Brady squinted up at Hutch, who had shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans. "Not really sure," he replied. "Your dad came by a week or so ago, asking me and the boys to go and check her place out. Said she hadn't been to the clinic for her medication for a while, and he was worried about her."

Hutch shifted his gaze out Brady's window, which faced the parking lot of a local grocery store. A mother about Cathy's age stepped briskly across the lot, with a list in one hand and a toddler's tiny paw in the other, and passed slowly by an elderly woman who inched behind a cart holding three brown paper bags and a sack of dog chow. He could picture the scene as easily as the events outside the window: his father charging into this office just as he had done, demanding Brady and his men do something to track down the disturbed young woman. And just as vividly, Brady sitting upright in his chair, treating Richard Hutchinson with a degree of respect he'd never show his son--but playing the same game, assuring Richard he and his men would do all they could and then forgetting the promise the minute the physician walked out the door. He felt his anger beginning to rise again. Quashing it with an effort, he returned his attention to the conversation.

"So where's she live?" Starsky was asking, as he flipped the file closed and dropped it onto the desk.

"Little house not too far from the chocolate shop," Brady said. "But I've got to tell you, boys, I'm not real keen on the idea of you dropping in over there."

"Why not?" Hutch was unable to resist challenging. "Afraid we'll mess up your pretty crime scene like we did last time?"

A flush shot up Brady's cheeks, and Starsky envisioned blood pressure going sky-high. He saw Hutch restrain a somewhat smug smile and knew, despite himself, his partner was taking some satisfaction in striking home. They'd run circles around Brady's so-called investigative team during the assaults in the park, and some of the town's more liberal citizens had had a few choice words for the Department's laissez faire attitude toward the crimes.

"I don't like your tone, son," Brady informed Hutch, irritation nudging through the folksy facade. "Sounds to me like you're afraid your dad'd rather have us on the case than light-in-the-loafer cops, even if one is his son."

Starsky watched his partner's eyes flash, then turn ice-cold, and saw muscles ripple as Hutch's jaw tightened.

Uh-oh.

"Maybe," Hutch retorted coldly. "But given the shabby police work we found here last time, I figured he'd rather have someone who might actually catch the woman who attacked him."

Brady's chin jutted forward as he locked eyes with Hutch. "By God, that's about all I'm gonna take from you, boy," he sneered in a low and dangerous voice. "You think I don't know the real reason you two were so goddamned interested in those assaults in the park? I don't think either of you's got the balls to handle the job."

For a moment, Hutch only stared at him. "That's about the most asinine thing I've ever heard," he said at last, his tone as deadly as Brady's eyes. "For all you know, we've both got a dozen medals for valor collecting dust in a closet somewhere."

"I don't care if you've got a black velvet painting of Liberace hangin' over your bed--and you probably do," Brady shot back. "Now maybe they don't have a problem with faggot cops where you come from, but I do. I don't care what you say, I don't trust you, or him, to be man enough to do this job alone."

"Now, you listen, Brady. You don't know a damned thing about us."

"Maybe not him, but I do know about you," Brady snapped. "And I know your old man deserves a damned sight better than to have a queer for a son."

Starsky watched Hutch's face pale, watched the hot flushed spots pop into his cheeks as his lips pressed tightly together. Though it took Hutch a few seconds to speak, Starsky knew he'd forgotten his presence, the need for Brady's cooperation, even the attack on his father. No, all Hutch saw was Brady, through a red haze of fury unleashed by the sheriff's direct hit in the place guaranteed to hurt Hutch most. He took a step forward.

Instantly, Starsky clamped onto his shoulders and hauled him back.

"What?" Hutch snapped, whipping his head around, ignoring the time-to-talk-sense look in Starsky's eyes. He tried to shake off the restraining hands, but Starsky wasn't about to let go.

"Easy," he urged in a tone that managed to command and soothe at the same time. "Remember what we're here for."

"Damn right, boys," Brady spat. "Whether you like it or not, this is my town and my investigation. If you want us to cooperate with you, I suggest you keep your snotty comments to yourself."

They glared at each other. Starsky knew part of Hutch wanted nothing more than to snatch up the file from the desk and tell Brady to shove it where the sun didn't shine, then to walk out of this place and never lay on eyes on it, Brady, or his father again. He tightened his grip on Hutch's shoulders, trying once more to break through the hot-headed haze.

"What?" Hutch repeated, the sound exploding from between clenched teeth.

"It's not worth wastin' your time," Starsky reminded him, his voice low. "You know you're not walkin' away from this, and antagonizing the local help's just gonna prolong the ordeal."

For a moment, they were all frozen in a tableau of tension and conflict--Brady well aware he'd screwed up in the past, but damned if he was going to admit it; and Hutch knowing darned well he needed this man's help, no matter how much he hated the idea. Starsky gave his shoulders one last reassuring squeeze.

With an effort, Hutch took in a breath and puffed it out. "Yeah," he agreed, forcing himself to relax. "You're right." He glanced back at Brady. "It's important, Jason."

Brady's face lost some of its tension. "I know," he said in a noticeably calmer tone. "I'll have Dolores make copies of the file, including the girl's photo, address, and the hospital information. You might want to run by there and have a word with Perkins' doctor."

A few moments later, they left Brady's office, Hutch taking the steps two at a time. As he unlocked Starsky's door, then rounded the car to slide behind the wheel, he was aware of Starsky's eyes on him.

"What?" he said at last, aware of his tone but unable to keep the petulance from bleeding through.

"I'm askin' you," Starsky's tone was as gentle as his hand that came to rest on Hutch's thigh. "What's goin' on, babe?"

Hutch concentrated on his driving for a moment, backing the car out of the sheriff's parking lot and turning toward his parents' side of town. Then he sighed and deliberately loosened his death grip on the steering wheel.

"This is worse than last time," he confessed in a low voice.

Starsky simply waited for him to continue, the hand still but supportive on his thigh.

"It never fails, Starsk, it's like this every damned time I come home," he went on ruefully. "On one hand, there's Saint Richard, the esteemed psychiatrist, the one everyone respects and loves and reveres."

"Reveres?" Starsky echoed, and Hutch could hear the raised eyebrows in his tone. "Don't you think you're takin' that a little far?"

"Oh, no, trust me," Hutch said bitterly. "So many people think of him that way, sometimes I think I'm the one who's crazy, that these memories I have of him as this demanding, imperious patriarch are just dead wrong."

"I've seen your dad in action and I've heard your sister talk about the way he treated you," Starsky pointed out. "Seems to me you've got reason to think of him that way."

"Yeah, but still…" Hutch's voice trailed off as he stopped for a light, squinting at the street sign, and palmed the car into a left turn.

"And what's that got to do with Brady, anyway?"

Hutch gnawed on his lip, feeling his head ache as he narrowed his eyes. "All that energy the last time we were here, Starsk," he said at last. "All that worry about how finding out about us might affect him and his reputation here in town…and here he is, not only fine but basically untouched by the whole damned thing." He sighed. "I guess…it was hard enough trying to fight everybody's image of him before, to not believe that I was the one who was wrong and somehow...flawed. And now, this time..."

His voice faltered again. Starsky's grip on his leg tightened.

"Here's my dad and the dozen different ways I feel about him right now," he tried again, illustrating his points with waves of his hand in different directions. "And here's Mom and Cathy, who I'd walk over hot coals for and who're both counting on us to find the woman who did this. And here's everybody in this one-horse town who's hiding behind their curtains, looking at us and having a little chuckle at the two gay cops."

"And..."

Hutch sighed again, feeling every one of the forty-eight hours he hadn't slept over the weekend. "And I know it sounds stupid, but I just don't get it," he continued, his voice tightening. "Everybody in this town thinks my dad walks on water, and I'm not saying he's the anti-Christ either, but Jesus. Every time I come here, it feels like us against the world."

"Yeah, babe, I know." The hand rubbed comfortingly up and down his thigh. "But maybe you're makin' it too complicated, at least for the time being."

Hutch tossed his partner a look, one eyebrow raised quizzically. "What're you talking about?"

Starsky frowned out the window as if trying to select his words from the scenery passing by. "Well," he said thoughtfully, "Right now, all you want is the same thing as your mom, Cathy, and everybody else in town, and that's to find this lady and get her off the streets so she doesn't hurt anyone else."

Hutch was silent for a moment, then nodded. "Yeah," he said quietly. "You're right." He turned the car as they passed the tiny chocolate shop. "It'll be a helluva lot easier if we just focus on that and then get out of here."

Starsky squeezed his thigh one last time.

"You got enough to think about, Hutch," he advised. "Just once, give that overworked brain of yours a break."

**********

Uh-oh!
Up on the rooftop, reindeer paws...
Who is it who is it who is it?
Are they back? Santa's little helpers!
Shhhh...not a creature should be stirring, not even a mouse.

**********

"Holy--" Hutch's voice trailed off as they entered the house. In all his years as a detective, he'd never seen anything quite like this.

On the walls of the hallway just inside the door, wires dangled on either side. Starsky inspected them, glanced up at the ceiling, and indicated the area with a jerk of his head.

"Booby trap," he said succinctly, and Hutch followed his gaze to a small pistol hanging from the ceiling. Fortunately, Brady and his deputies had known enough to enter the house with caution and had managed to disarm this security system that, from its angle, was set to fire a warning shot at any intruders.

Past the wires and into the living room, which was off to the left of the door, the walls were covered with papers. Newspaper clippings; magazine articles and covers; pages of handwriting that ranged from tiny, cramped, and organized, to wild scrawls that bled off the page onto the wall itself. Each article, every notation had something to do with medical research and experimentation. Some were as absurd as the ubiquitous rumors of genetic mutations from supermarket tabloids, and some were from legitimate science and mainstream publications. The articles grew more technical farther down the hall, accompanied by miniscule and coherent printing. But as the detectives entered the living room, the subjects became more speculative and sensational, and the handwriting more bizarre.

Hutch touched one carefully. "Word salad," he murmured, recalling a term his father had used from time to time. "Shows when schizophrenics are getting more disorganized."

"Hutch."

Starsky had stepped around the furniture, clearly laid out in a bizarre pattern to confuse and distract intruders, and taken in the careful but meaningless arrangement of multicolored doilies on a dining room table, which sat in the middle of the room. He had paused there to look up at the ceiling, where he now directed Hutch's attention.

Hutch turned from his perusal of the chaos on the wall. Frowning at the light fixture, he crossed the room to join his partner, and whistled.

Suspended from the lamp and stretched to the top of the walls, were hundreds of razor blades, attached meticulously to wire so fine it was barely visible. The wires extended to where the ceiling met the walls, and then disappeared behind a dully gleaming rail of trim that ran around the ceiling's perimeter. Gathered the way they were, they looked like nothing more than interesting adornment, but as Hutch watched, Starsky's eyes traveled along one set of wires to the wall below, then flicked to the corner just outside the living room. Frowning, Starsky wove back through the furniture and craned his neck to peer without touching at an elaborate wall sconce. After a few moments' examination, he glanced over his shoulder at Hutch.

"Step back," he instructed. "All the way out of the room."

Puzzled, Hutch took in the two alternatives--the way they had come in, or the entryway that led to a small breakfast nook and galley kitchen. Given the hazards they'd run into so far, he opted for the way he knew was clear, and joined his partner in the entryway.

Starsky turned a knob on the sconce. A large, soft bulb at the top sprang to life, but otherwise nothing happened. Hutch glanced at his partner and began to move back into the living room, but Starsky's hand stopped him before he could take the first step. Shrugging, Hutch crossed his arms across his chest and waited.

The seconds passed. Then, about a minute after Starsky had turned on the light, there was a soft whirring sound, and suddenly, the railing flipped up and the dozens of wires zipped down grooves in the walls, slicing through the air with a whistle and encasing the room in a gleaming, deadly spiderweb.

"Criminy," Hutch said under his breath.

"Yeah," Starsky breathed beside him. "Turn on the light so you can see what you're doing, and this thing gives you just enough time to get inside and get sliced up like so much salami."

He turned the switch again, and the wires hummed back up to the ceiling, where the railing closed over them once more.

"What the hell are we dealing with here?" Hutch wondered out loud. "Some kind of sick defensive genius?"

"Looks like it," Starsky said, eyes still on the wires that waved gently in the wake of their own movement. "I don't know about you, but I think I've seen enough."

"Yeah," Hutch agreed fervently. As confident as he was in his and Starsky's ability to anticipate just about any kind of trouble, he had a bad feeling about this place. The basic criminal mind was one thing, but sprinkle that with a good dose of insanity, and it seemed the best thing to do was retreat until they could gather further information.

As if by mutual agreement, they stepped back toward the front door and let themselves out. Walking to the car, Hutch felt a chill ripple over him, and he paused, turning to look back at the house. On the driver's side, Starsky waited.

"What?"

Hutch gazed at the house for a moment, sweeping it from the cupola on the second floor to the tiny pebbled windows that obscured the view to the basement. He shook his head. "Nothing, I guess," he said, but even he knew his voice lacked conviction. "Just...seemed like someone was watching us."

"Given what we saw inside," Starsky said as he pulled open his door and slid inside the car, "that wouldn't surprise me a bit."

"Wonder how Brady and his guys missed that little gem?"

Hutch contemplated the sarcastic remark he really wanted to make in response to that, then shrugged and decided to give Brady the benefit of the doubt. "Cathy said it was morning when Dad came out here and she attacked him," he noted. "Maybe they just never turned on the light."

**********

And I heard him exclaim as he flew out of sight,
"Disaster to all and to all a good fright!"
They're gone they're gone they're gone you can come out now.
They found the web. They found the Plans.
They have to be from the Project. They have to be.
Attention all personnel: Code Yellow. Increase security to Level Two.

**********

Sutherland Psychiatric Hospital was located several miles from town, on a stretch of land that rolled gently and extended lush green hills as far as the eye could see. As Starsky started down the entrance road, he was surprised to see no fence and no security guards, particularly as they topped a small rise and came upon a huddle of small brick cottages. People in street clothes lounged on the patios and front porches, while others traveled the paths that ran between the small structures, or followed the one that led up to the next hillock.

"Patients?" Hutch guessed, turning to watch out the back window. "Or staff?"

"Maybe both," Starsky speculated, flicking a glance at the rearview mirror. The people they had passed had given the rental car a perfunctory look, nothing more, and returned to their activities. Even the ones walking the path beside the road paid little attention to the two detectives.

The road rose over another hill and curved sharply to the right. Around that corner were the miles of tall chain-link fence the detectives had expected, which broke into gates at two imposing brick pillars that flanked a large security shed. Starsky pulled the car to the entrance and rolled down the window.

"Detectives Starsky and Hutchinson to see Dr. Reed," he said, passing their badge wallets to the guard, who was dressed in a white shirt and dark slacks rather than a uniform. He was unarmed. A small badge pinned to his pocket gave his name as Brett Henderson, over bold print that read Sutherland Psychiatric Hospital. The guard inspected the badges and the two detectives' photos, then glanced up.

"Is she expecting you?" he asked in a surprisingly pleasant voice.

"Possibly," Starsky hedged. "Sheriff Brady might have called to let her know we were coming."

"Just a moment, please," Henderson requested politely, closing the window. He reached back for a telephone that squatted just inside the shed's window, and pressed several numbers.

While they waited, Hutch occupied himself by examining the shed, which was small but neat as a pin. The windows were so clean they were nearly invisible, and he could see easily inside to a bulletin board with neatly hung notices, and a counter that held a sign-in book, a walkie-talkie, and a bank of security monitors. "Nice environment," he commented to Starsky, who nodded as Henderson finished his conversation. "Looks better than your locker on its best day."

"Or your car," was all Starsky had time to fire back before Henderson slid open the window and passed their badges back through.

"She's on one of the units right now, but she said to go on in and one of the aides will meet you and take you to her office," he said. He leaned out the window and pointed toward a four-story brick building with white trim that stood at the end of the driveway. "Just go straight ahead, then swing left for visitor's parking. There's an emergency bay there--it's clearly marked--and Lisa will meet you there to take you upstairs."

"Thank you," Starsky said sincerely. It was rare they got such cooperation from security guards, generally referred to with scorn as "rent-a-cops" by those who considered themselves the genuine article. Though there were a few exceptions, most of the guards they ran into were Academy failures or dropouts, who seemed to hold a grudge against every individual who'd made it through--particularly those who'd risen to the level of Detective Sergeant.

"You're welcome, gentlemen," Henderson said with another polite smile, handing a set of plastic visitor's passes through the window. "Here, let me help you with that."

He startled Starsky enough that he didn't protest as the guard clipped the pass to his collar. "Thanks--" he began, then stopped as Henderson frowned and adjusted the pass minutely. "That's good," he said, but the guard was already shifting it once again. "No, really."

"It's just...not quite right," Henderson fretted under his breath. "Just...maybe another half a centimeter here--"

He reached through the window again, but Starsky gently pushed his hand away. "It's fine," he reassured the man. "Honest." He gunned the engine and pulled away, just as the arm with its blindingly white, crisply ironed sleeve began to emerge from the window once more. "Thanks," he tossed over his shoulder.

"Nice guy," Starsky said, handing Hutch his badge and the plastic visitor's pass as they moved through the gates toward the main building.

"Yeah." Hutch took the badge and pass without looking, his attention on the information Brady had given them.

"What was that all about, I wonder?"

"What was what all about?" Hutch's tone was absent as he slipped the badge into his hip pocket and clipped on the visitor's pass.

Starsky stole one last glance at the rearview mirror as the guard shack disappeared behind a rise, then shrugged. "Nothin'."

He glanced over at Hutch and the pass dangling crookedly from his jacket collar, and reached over to straighten it.

Hutch looked down at the pass for a moment, then shifted curious eyes to his partner, one eyebrow cocked. "Starsk?"

"Yeah."

Hutch opened his mouth, closed it, then shook his head, deciding he didn't want to know.

"Never mind."

A young woman was waiting at the emergency entrance, and she stepped forward to greet them as the doors closed behind them. Like the others they had seen on the grounds, she wore street clothes--jeans, in fact--and a turquoise polo shirt and a pair of sneakers. "Detectives Starsky and Hutchinson?" she inquired. When they nodded, she continued, "I'm Lisa Evers. If you'll come with me, I'll show you to Dr. Reed's office."

"Thanks," Starsky said. They fell into step behind her as she led the way to an elevator.

"This is a nice place," Hutch commented when the doors had closed and the elevator began its journey upward. Lisa flashed him an appreciative smile.

"Thank you," she said. "It's a relatively new facility, and the staff and patients work hard to make sure it's clean and welcoming."

The doors opened and Lisa led the way down a well-lit hall, which was decorated with deep rose carpeting, a number of chairs and small tables, and tasteful artwork arranged at pleasing intervals along the walls. "This is Dr. Reed's office," she said, pushing open a door about halfway down the hall. "She's down on the second floor with a patient at the moment, but she said she'd be up in about ten minutes." She gestured toward the desk that stood at the office's far end. "She had one of the ward clerks bring up Ms. Perkins' chart; she thought you might want to familiarize yourself with her history while you're waiting."

"Thank you," Starsky told her; she smiled warmly at him again and withdrew. Hutch watched Starsky eyeing her, and nudged him.

"Stop staring," he ordered. "It's rude."

Starsky tore his eyes away and stepped into the office. "Think she's a patient?"

"Absolutely," Hutch teased. "Only a crazy woman would lay that kind of smile on an ugly mug like yours."

"Funny," Starsky retorted. He crossed the office to a window by the desk and gazed out at the lawns, numerous trees, and picnic tables scattered at intervals across the grounds. "Nice place," he echoed Hutch's earlier comment. "Beats the hell out of Cabrillo State."

Hutch raised and lowered his eyebrows in a gesture of emphatic agreement. "Boy, you got that right," he said, remembering the dim, chilly halls of the mental institution where they'd once gone undercover as patient and orderly. From what they'd seen so far, he was fairly certain there were few, if any, rooms where the patients were completely restrained as Starsky had been. He wandered over to the desk and picked up a thick chart labeled "Perkins, J." Flipping it open, he sank into a maroon overstuffed chair and began to read, starting with the discharge summary that lay on top.

"So what do the records say?" Starsky asked idly after several minutes, from a bookshelf where he was examining a number of titles on schizophrenia.

"That she was released about seven months ago, 'in remission'," Hutch declared, slapping the file shut and tossing it back onto the desk, his previous good humor gone. "'In remission', my ass," he spat, shoving himself to his feet. "Determined, no doubt, by the same kind of test that got Commander Jim sprung just before he killed Helen."

Pacing, he missed Starsky's wince at the mention of the policewoman who had once been his lover, long before he and Hutch had ever looked at each other as anything but partners and friends.

"This system makes me crazy, Starsk," Hutch went on, too angry to hear the irony in his words. "Seems like every time we turn around, some psychopath ends up gunning for someone we care about--"

"Janine's psychotic, Detective, not a psychopath," a feminine voice corrected from the doorway.

Starsky turned from the bookshelf, and Hutch halted abruptly in his pacing. A sturdy woman with shoulder-length hair stood in the doorway, arms crossed, one eyebrow raised.

Hutch's first impression of her was of a distinct lack of color and flair. She wore beige knit slacks, a matching sweater set, and flats; her hair was light brown and tucked hurriedly behind her ears. Even the frames of her glasses were nondescript, nearly blending into a face devoid of makeup. Pale blue eyes blinked behind thick lenses, as hands with neatly trimmed, bare nails tapped on the crossed arms.

"Psychotic," the woman repeated. "There's a difference."

"Is there, now?" Hutch said, his tone barely civil.

"Yes," the woman said firmly, crossing the threshold to her office.

"And what might that be?" Hutch inquired.

"Oh, brain chemistry, a history of violence, and a little thing called remorse," the woman informed him crisply. "Contrary to popular belief, most schizophrenics aren't violent, and the ones who are usually act on the command of auditory hallucinations, or because their distorted perceptions lead them to believe their victim is someone they're not."

"Like who?" Hutch challenged, ignoring the warning look Starsky darted at him. Seating herself behind her desk, the woman glanced up at him, then reached for the file he had tossed down.

"Well, in Miss Perkins' particular case, it could've been demons from hell, or some figure from her past," she replied, as she studied a page in the chart. "We're talking about a woman who suffered incredibly serious abuse when she was first committed, at the ripe old age of twenty-one." Her eyes lifted from the chart to meet Hutch's in a level gaze. "Back then, some practitioners tended to see their patients as nothing but guinea pigs for medical experiments and their own perverted pleasures."

Hutch felt an embarrassed flush rise to his cheeks, but he wasn't yet ready to let go of his anger. "So if she was so sick, why was she released?" he demanded, ignoring the light touch of Starsky's hand on his arm. "Results of some test score?"

"Really, Detective," the doctor said chidingly. "No self-respecting clinician would release a psychotic patient without a battery of tests, clinical interviews, and observations in increasingly independent settings. Janine Perkins' transition from our institution to the community took over a year, with one of our finest psychiatrists overseeing her release evaluation. She did exceptionally well in her trial release, and until she stopped taking her medication, was one of our success stories."

The flush on Hutch's cheeks deepened.

"Now that I have hopefully assured you that we do have some measure of competence," the woman continued, "perhaps we could go back and introduce ourselves?" She rose to her feet and extended one hand. "I'm Martha Reed, chief psychologist and administrator here, but everybody calls me Marty. I assume you're the detectives investigating the attack on Dr. Hutchinson?"

"Not really," Starsky said, stepping in when Hutch seemed disinclined to respond. "We're from Bay City, but we're working with the local department on the attack."

"California?" Marty looked up sharply, forehead creasing in a puzzled frown. "Really? Odd, I can't imagine Jason letting any outsiders horn in on his case, particularly two detectives from California." Her gaze flicked from Starsky to Hutch, and her frown deepened. "How--?"

She stopped abruptly as she took in Hutch's facial features and his frame, which in its current rigid state was nearly identical to his father's.

"Oh, my God," she murmured. "You're Richard's son, aren't you? You're Ken."

Hutch nodded once, curtly.

Her eyes softened. "Ken--" she began, then in deference to his tense expression, corrected herself. "Detective Hutchinson, I can't tell you how sorry I am. Your father is tremendously respected here, and we were devastated by what happened."

"By the attack on my father, or the failure of your 'success story'?" Hutch said tersely.

"Both," she replied bluntly. "We care a great deal about all of our patients, Detective, and our staff."

There was a moment of awkward silence, as Hutch felt his anger ebb away to be replaced by remorse at his belligerent attitude. "I'm...sorry," he apologized at last. "I'm sure you can understand my--. We've seen this kind of thing before, with pretty disastrous results."

"I do understand," Marty said, the defensiveness leaving her own voice. "I also know there are a lot of agencies out there who don't take nearly the care we do. Believe me, they leave as bad a taste in my mouth as they do in yours." She picked up the file and moved from behind her desk, gesturing toward a couch and the overstuffed chairs. "Why don't we make ourselves comfortable, gentlemen, and I'll tell you what I can about Janine and how your father fits into the picture."

Hutch took a seat on the couch, as the flush finally faded from his cheeks. Starsky elected to perch on the back. Declining the doctor's offer of coffee, Hutch nodded toward the chart in her hand. "So...what exactly happened to Janine?"

"Graduated high school here in 1965, went on to Minneapolis immediately afterward," Marty recounted, not even opening the chart. "She's an incredibly brilliant girl; she was working toward a double major in engineering and physics at a time when women just didn't do those things. She'd sailed through high school, earned near perfect scores on her college entrance exams, and was earning straight As at the University of Minnesota, when she had her first psychotic break, right before finals in her senior year."

"What happened?" Starsky asked curiously.

"Well, she suddenly stopped going to class, and when some of her classmates tried to find her, she wouldn't come out of her room, wouldn't even answer the door. They could hear her moving around in there, but she wouldn't respond to any of them. They had to get the school custodian to take the hinges off the door." She shook her head. "It was amazing, what they found--the walls just covered with newspaper clippings, and the strangest, most dangerous little booby traps all around the room. It took weeks to clear the room and find all the things she had set up to protect herself."

"Like her house now," Hutch noted, and Marty nodded.

"Like I said, Janine's incredibly bright. She was headed for a brilliant career in the defense industry before her illness manifested. When she first decompensates, both her paranoia and her talent for engineering and design kick into overdrive. It's only later, as she becomes more ill, that she becomes completely disorganized." She shook her head again. "Obviously, this time was the worst of all," she said unhappily. "In all the years she's been in treatment and in the community, she's never physically assaulted anyone."

"What do you think triggered her?" Starsky inquired.

Marty shook her head once more. "No one knows what really precipitates these things," she replied ruefully. "We've got some theories, of course, but what we know about schizophrenia is still so new that we're just finding the right medication so those who suffer from it can return to society." Her face gathered in a sorrowful frown. "Unfortunately, what's the right balance in here may not be adequate under the stressors of independent living, and some patients have a similar experience to Janine's."

"How'd my father get involved?"

"Richard had cut back on his hours at St. John's, as I'm sure you know," Marty told him. "But apparently the inactivity was beginning to make him stir crazy, just when our chief psychiatrist left us high and dry. He'd been consulting with us for some time, and he was more than happy to cover out here until we could fill the position." She gazed down at the chart in her hands. "He and Janine hit it off immediately. She could really sense how much he cared about her recovery, and how much he wanted to see her back in the community. He lobbied long and hard for her release when the time came." She looked back up at the detectives. "When we called to let him know she hadn't been in to the clinic for her medication, he was as close to frantic as I've ever seen him. He wanted to go out right away, make sure she hadn't barricaded herself like she had in college, but we managed to talk him into waiting for the police to check things out first."

"Or so you thought," Starsky interjected. Marty smiled wryly.

"Or so we thought," she agreed. "I had no idea he'd gone out there until I got the call from Brady, asking if we'd seen Janine or heard from her. Apparently, Richard had gone out to...hurry the police up a bit."

"Which they didn't appreciate," Hutch predicted.

"I see you've met Sheriff Brady," Marty quipped. "And when he didn't get the answer he wanted, being Richard, he simply took matters into his own hands." She spread her hands. "As for how she came to attack him, I'm afraid you'll have to talk to your father about that. But as I said, I suspect Janine was actively hallucinating and saw Richard as one of the doctors from her first institutionalization."

"What about the Christmas song?" Starsky asked suddenly. Hutch frowned at him, puzzled by the apparent non sequitor. "Remember, your sister said she was singing some Christmas song when your dad tried to call her?"

"Oh. Right."

The concern in Marty's eyes grew as she opened the chart on her lap. "I didn't know about that," she murmured as she flipped through the pages. "That's...well, that's a pretty good sign of how deep Janine is into her psychosis." She paused, and handed the chart to Hutch. "This is a drawing she made when she first got here, before she was stabilized."

Hutch examined the drawing closely as Starsky looked over his shoulder. Like Janine's living room, it was a peculiar combination of adult sophistication, childish delight, and a primitive sense of terror. In the center was the realistic portrait of a man with sharp, chiseled features, bearing a strong resemblance to Hutch's father but with the white beard extending past his chin to his chest. Below his head, the body deteriorated into a clumsy crayon drawing, a vividly red Santa Claus suit with chunky white cuffs. In stark contrast, the hands emerging from the cuffs were cruel, precisely formed tools of pain--hypodermic needles, a finger ending in a sharp nail, a razor blade. Around the border of the picture ran the words of the popular song "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." The words varied as crazily as the ones on Janine's walls, from neat printing to a nearly illegible childish scrawl.

Hutch felt another chill race down his back as mixed feelings began to churn inside. He passed the chart to Starsky so his partner could take a closer look, and got to his feet, moving to the window to try to gather himself together.

Behind him, he heard Starsky heave a philosophical sigh. "So we've got a brilliant, psychotic woman, who's disappeared and who makes some of the most lethal weapons we've ever seen," he summarized glumly. "Any idea where she might've gone?"

"Under other circumstances, I'd think she'd go straight back home," Marty said immediately. "Defended the way it is, it's the only place she'd really feel safe."

"We don't know that she's there," Hutch mused from the window, running images through his head of their brief visit to Janine's home.

"But we don't know she's not," Starsky pointed out. "If she's still as good at hiding out as she was in college--"

"And my guess would be that she is," Marty agreed.

"Then she could be holed up anywhere...attic, basement," Starsky finished.

There was silence for a moment. Handing the chart back to Marty, Starsky cast a concerned look at his partner, who under normal circumstances would have picked up the investigative ball at this point. But, though Hutch seemed to be doing nothing more than gazing out the window at the clinic's grounds, Starsky saw the set of his jaw and the restless way his fingers played with the string that operated Marty's blinds. His partner clearly was struggling with something, and, knowing Hutch, Starsky suspected it was a battle between his sympathy for the girl's plight, and the irrefutable fact that she had nearly killed his father. He felt a flash of compassion for Hutch, remembering his own confusion over Commander Jim, and turned back to Marty to give Hutch a few more minutes to work things through.

"You obviously know her pretty well," Starsky said, pulling a card from his pocket and writing a phone number on the back. "We'd appreciate it if you'd let us in on any other thoughts you have about how we can find her without anybody else getting hurt--including her."

"I've been thinking about that," Marty said. "And I wonder if the first step is to approach her with a protective figure from her past."

"Such as?" Interest piqued enough to put his own conflict on hold for the moment, Hutch had turned and was now leaning against the window, eyes on the psychologist.

"Possibly her brother, Michael--he's been a tremendous resource for her since she was first hospitalized," Marty mused. "But I'm not sure where he is now; I'll have to go through her chart more thoroughly to find out." She sighed. "She's been well for so long, it's been over a year since I spoke with him."

"Well, when you find something--" Starsky said, rising to his feet.

"We're staying at my folks' house, at least until my dad gets better," Hutch added, pushing away from the window sill and joining his partner. "You give her the number?"

Starsky showed him the card in response. "If you'd give us a call there when you think of something, we'd appreciate it." Starsky pressed the card into Marty's hand and gave her a reassuring smile. "We'd rather see her get the help she needs, instead of ending up in jail or shot by one of Brady's deputies."

"So would I," Marty said with feeling, also rising to her feet as the two detectives headed toward the door. They had just crossed the threshold when her voice stopped them. "You know," she said thoughtfully, and Hutch turned to see her inspecting him. "You actually remind me a lot of your dad."

Starsky saw the usual wince hit Hutch at the words, followed by a somewhat brittle smile.

"I guess that's not necessarily a compliment," she said gently, sensing his discomfort. "But Richard is an amazing clinician. He really cares about his patients, and he'll go to any lengths to help them--even asking for advice from a non-MD like me." She smiled at him. "Just like you did."

Hutch relaxed visibly, and his smile became more genuine. "I know he's a good doctor," he told her softly. "I've always known that."

He turned then and exited the office while Starsky lingered for a moment.

"A good doctor," Marty murmured, looking after Hutch's retreating figure, "but not the best father, I gather."

"Let's just say Hutch didn't learn his bedside manner from his father," Starsky told her with a dry smile. "Thank you for your help," he continued. "We'll keep in touch."

"Please do," she requested. "And good luck."

Starsky nodded and started to go after Hutch, then turned back.

"Uh, Doc," he said, somewhat hesitantly. "One last thing."

On her way back to her desk, Marty turned, her eyes inquiring.

"The guy in the guard shack," Starsky said. "Do you think he's a little...strange?"

"Who, Brett?" Marty's voice was startled. "Why? Was something wrong?"

"Not wrong, exactly," Starsky hedged. "But the, uh, place was real clean, and he kept...adjusting my visitor's pass after he put it on."

"Oh." Marty relaxed and gave a little laugh. "Well, I guess you could say he's a little unusual, Detective Starsky." She continued her journey behind her desk and sank into her chair. "When they reach the work program, a number of our patients take small jobs around the facility. It's rare that someone is allowed to staff the guard house, but even under successful treatment, Brett's...condition gives him an attention to detail that makes him particularly suited to that task."

"Oh." Starsky started to leave again, but his curiosity got the better of him and he turned back once more. "I gotta know," he said apologetically. "Exactly what is his condition?"

Her eyes twinkled. "Obsessive-compulsive disorder," she replied, and her smile broadened.

Starsky's widened in response, and he winked at her, then turned to catch up with his partner.

They rode down the elevator in silence, Hutch focusing on the blinking floor numbers as if this were required to make the machine work properly. Watching him, Starsky considered telling him what Marty had said, then changed his mind at the pensive look on Hutch's face. Clearly, his partner was still mulling over facts and feelings, trying to pull the pieces together into some kind of coherent picture he could work with, personally as well as professionally. He needed to think at his own pace at times like these, and so Starsky merely laid a reassuring hand on his back as they exited the elevator and then the building, and squeezed his shoulder again before they moved to their respective sides of the car.

Sutherland was several miles behind them when Hutch emitted a soft, "Huh."

This was usually a sign that Hutch had come up against something, but it wasn't clear whether it was something logical or one of Hutch's unique side roads.

"Nickel for 'em," Starsky invited. Hutch chuckled.

"Thought the going price was a penny," he teased.

"Yeah, well, anything that deep's gotta cost a little more," Starsky said matter-of-factly.

Beside him came Hutch's characteristic half-laugh deep in his throat, then his expression sobered.

"I've just been trying to sort all this out, I guess," he said slowly, fingers fiddling with the electronic controls for the windows and door locks.

"What happened, or how you feel about it?"

There was another throaty chuckle, and Starsky allowed himself a smile. Do I know my partner, or what?

"Both," Hutch admitted. He jiggled one of the switches. The window went down an inch, up, then down again. Starsky let him play for another moment, then surreptitiously flicked a button on his own door, the one that gave him sole control of the windows and locks. Hutch pressed the switch a final time, shrugged without surprise when nothing happened, and went on. "This girl is very, very sick," he said thoughtfully. "And I know she wasn't really attacking my dad; it's pretty clear from that picture and what Marty said that she was seeing some other monster in her head, some son-of-a-bitch that tortured her a long time ago."

"Right," Starsky encouraged.

"And...well, dammit, Starsk, my father isn't my favorite person in the world, but after Diana played that "Psycho" shower bit on me, I wouldn't wish a nasty stab wound on anyone." Hutch's fingers strayed toward the window controls again, then away as if he remembered he could no longer manipulate them. "And she almost killed him, which means--"

Starsky saw him press steepled fingers against his lips. Reaching over, he touched a finger to his partner's temple.

"Lots of things goin' on in there," he observed, then moved the hand down to Hutch's chest, where he caressed briefly. "And there."

"Yeah." Hutch breathed out a sigh, relieved he didn't have to explain. "That's it. I know I should be angry, and I know I should want nothing but to see this woman behind bars, be it a jail cell or a mental institution. And in a way, I am angry, but I can't decide whether I am because I think I'm supposed to be, or because I'm really--" He stopped, and his fingers now worked in the air in front of him, as if he were trying to physically locate the words he was seeking.

Starsky let him search for a minute--Hutch sometimes preferred to fill in his own blanks--then gently supplied, "You're scared."

Beside him, Hutch heaved another sigh, and his shoulders slumped. His hands dropped to his lap, and he nodded. "Yeah," he repeated. "Dammit, why does he still have this much power over me?"

Starsky took a hand from the wheel and clasped the damp hands in his partner's lap.

"Because he's your dad and there's something you want from him," he said simply. "And if he's dead, you'll never get it."

Hutch's hand turned and curled around Starsky's and squeezed.

This time, there was no need for the confirming "Yeah."

**********

They were both silent until they pulled into the hospital parking lot, where, with a grin, Starsky released the door locks. Not seeming to notice, Hutch opened his door and stepped out, then over the roof of the car continued as if they'd just spoken.

"So, where do you think we go from here? We've got a brilliant engineer, whose equally intelligent voices are telling her something."

"Something frightening enough for her to arm the whole house against invaders," Starsky noted, joining him as they both started across the parking lot. Hutch nodded.

"And with her paranoia, she's going to see anyone who goes near that place as the enemy," he continued. "We only saw a few of her traps--my money's on there being several more, all around the house."

"Mine, too," Starsky agreed.

"So how the hell are we going to approach her?"

"Hutch, we don't even know she's in the house," Starsky reminded him.

"Not for sure," Hutch admitted. "But if you put yourself in her shoes, it's really the only place to go. It's closed in, it's familiar, and most important, it's defended."

"But she'd have to know they'd be watching the place," Starsky pointed out.

"Oh, sure," Hutch conceded. "But she'd expect that, whether they were or not, because of her paranoia. And I'm guessing she's had a return route planned from day one, for just such an occasion."

"Which brings us back to the big question: How do we find her...and how do we bring her in without either her or us getting hurt?"

"Marty said something about finding someone approachable from her past," Hutch reflected. "Her brother? Sounds like he's the best place to start--let's call Marty tomorrow about that."

"Sounds like a plan, unless one of us comes up with somethin' better overnight," Starsky sighed. They climbed up a flight of stairs, then traveled along a walkway that led to the hospital's main entrance. For a moment, Starsky was reminded of the two of them walking down a motel's rickety metal stairs, joking about being shooting gallery targets even as they kept a lookout for their potential assassin.

Alexander Drew.

His memory rewound to him and Hutch in the locker room one morning, Hutch bare-chested, combing his hair and whistling, Starsky uncharacteristically quiet. When Hutch had commented on this, Starsky had proceeded to bombard him with a series of observations that had gradually driven Hutch from distracted amusement to studied indulgence of his partner's idiosyncratic thought processes.

What if your parents had never met? You might've never been born. What if your name had been Anderson instead of Hutchinson? You might've been a doctor. There's a lot of what-if questions you can ask yourself, Hutch. You just gotta think about it.

As was often the case, however, Hutch had the last word, as Starsky pulled himself from his reverie and started nagging him about the time.

C'mon...you don't wanna be late for work, do ya?

Still wearing his most patient expression, Hutch had gathered his jacket and a carton of milk and started out. At the door, however, he stopped for a beat, then turned to Starsky and asked, What if we were?

Since then, the "what-if" game had taken on a series of meanings, some more ominous than Starsky wanted to think about.

Mac's car blew sky-high.

What if?

What if he and Hutch had not parked in the police garage that day back in 1979? What if they had left an hour sooner, or an hour later? What if, since the office was being repainted anyway, they had simply decided not to go into the station at all, but straight to their beat?

What if Janine Perkins had gone to a different college, been hospitalized somewhere else, been released to another town? What if the absent psychiatrist had waited another month to depart Sutherland, or Dr. Hutchinson had waited another year to cut back his hours at the hospital? Or what if he had heeded everyone's advice and let the police make the first move on Janine's house?

What if?

"Hey."

Realizing Hutch was standing in the hospital entrance, holding open the door for him, Starsky shook himself back to the present and ducked inside. As they turned toward Intensive Care, Hutch tossed him a puzzled look and asked, "Where'd you go, back there?"

Starsky shook his head. "There's something about this that feels kinda familiar."

"Alex Drew," Hutch said with a nod, as if he'd been privy to Starsky's thoughts all along.

"Lot of similarities, don't you think?"

"Weapons expert, brilliant mind gone a little haywire, all kinds of obstacles to location and capture." Hutch ticked the points off on his fingers. "Yep, I'd say he and Janine Perkins have a few things in common."

"At least this time, we're gettin' more cooperation from the administration," Starsky observed.

"And she's not out on the streets, gunning for us," Hutch added.

"Good thing," Starsky snorted. "At this point, we need all the breaks we can get."

By this time, they'd arrived at the Intensive Care waiting room, to find Miranda and Cathy talking with one of the nurses. This wasn't Rita, but a plump woman with curly coal black hair and dancing dark eyes, who introduced herself as Collette Iverson and told Starsky she'd known Hutch "since he was a pup." Hutch smiled absently at the jibe, to which he'd become accustomed, but his attention was focused on his mother and sister.

"You guys look a lot better," Starsky commented, echoing his relieved thoughts.

"I finally went home and got some sleep and a little real food," Miranda admitted. "And Cathy's glow is probably due to the fact that Craig flew in this afternoon, and she got to spend a little time with him before she came back here."

Hutch couldn't resist tossing a teasing smile to his sister and pulling her close to his side in a one-armed hug.

"Dad's awake," Cathy blurted out, unable to withhold the good news any longer.

"That's great," Hutch said with relief. From the little he knew about amnesia following a head trauma, he knew a brief period of unconsciousness meant a lower chance of brain damage.

"But," Collette interjected, waving a warning finger at Cathy, who subsided. "There are some complications."

"What...complications?" Hutch asked warily.

"He's more than a little disoriented," Collette said in the straightforward tone Hutch remembered well. "He knows where he is, and he recognizes your mother and Cathy, but--"

"He's not exactly in the present day," Miranda filled in. "He thought Cathy was still in high school, and kept asking about you and Vanessa."

"How long should that last?" Hutch asked Collette.

Collette shrugged. "Not long, I should think," she predicted. "His body's had a pretty major shock and his brain just hasn't caught up...but I'd be surprised if he weren't back to his old self in less than twenty-four hours."

Gnawing the inside of his lip, Hutch rocked back on his heels for a moment to absorb this new bit of information. "Maybe I should wait to see him, huh?" he said at length. "Wait until he's back in the here and now?"

Cathy and his mother exchanged glances, and Miranda stepped forward to place one hand on his arm. "I think it might be good for you to go in there, see him now," she told him gently.

Hutch raised an eyebrow, waiting for her to elaborate.

She took a breath, and her own brows drew in as she spoke, clearly choosing her words carefully. "I know you and your father have had less than a banner year, sweetheart--"

Hutch couldn't restrain a snort. "Make that a banner decade," he muttered bitterly.

"But...there was a time when he was proud of you, even when he was driving you the hardest," Miranda went on, ignoring his outburst. "He's still so dopey right now, it's like--like there are cracks in that hard shell, and you can see all the vulnerable bits." She raised pleading blue eyes to her son. "Just once, Ken, I'd like you to have a chance to see your father without the mask he seems to wear around you all the time."

Hutch drew in a breath, puffed out his cheeks, and blew the air out again. He looked at Starsky, who met his gaze, then gave a minute tilt of his head. Despite his consternation, Hutch nearly broke into a grin. Only his partner could convey so much in a simple brief gesture--encouragement, love, and a promise to be there no matter what happened.

"All right, Mom," he relented. "I'll go in for a little while. But if he starts harassing me about my grades or college boards, I'm right out of there."

"He won't," she said confidently. "Go on, dear. It'll be good for you to spend some time with him like this."

Squaring his shoulders, Hutch took one last bit of strength from Starsky's eyes, then headed down the hall toward Richard's room.

Much of the paraphernalia was gone, which was expected, given the fact that they planned to move him to a regular room that evening. The head of the bed was propped up slightly. Richard reclined against two fat white pillows, eyes closed, one hand moving gently from side to side. As he neared the bed, Hutch heard faint snatches of his father's favorite opera, and knew Richard was indulging in a once-favorite pastime--conducting the orchestra in his head. Hutch forced a smile.

"Hey, Dad," he greeted Richard softly. "How're you feeling?"

Richard's eyes slitted open. For a moment, Hutch held his breath, waiting for the blue coldness to surface, for the harsh words to emerge from his father's lips as he once again ordered Hutch out of his life.

Then, to his astonishment, the lips did something he hadn't seen in years: they turned up at the corners into a welcoming smile.

"Ken," Richard murmured in a hoarse, slightly slurred voice. "Come sit down, son. That respirator tube they had in my throat'll make it damned hard to talk for a day or two."

Still cautious, Hutch moved toward the bed and settled himself at the edge of one of the chairs. Richard's eyes followed him, and the smile broadened.

"Look at you," he said. "Taking time out from college to come see your dad. Shouldn't have done it, though; you need to stay at those books to keep your grades up."

"I know, Dad," slipped automatically from Hutch's lips; this was much more familiar territory.

"How is school anyway?"

"Fine," Hutch said. "Great."

"Good." Richard's eyes drifted closed, flickered open for a moment, then closed again and didn't move. "Keep up the good work, huh?"

Hutch swallowed. "You bet, Dad." Hardly able to believe he was doing it, he reached forward and laid one hand over Richard's, noticing as he did how fragile his father's skin seemed, how prominent the veins. "Listen," he said huskily. "I'm...I'm gonna go now, let you get some rest. I'll be back later."

"Good," Richard repeated without opening his eyes, the words barely audible. "Take care of your mother; make sure she gets some rest."

"I will," Hutch said, relieved to tell one truth in this bizarre little scene. "Don't worry about it."

Richard nodded infinitesimally. Taking this as a dismissal, Hutch rose to his feet and started quietly toward the door, figuring his father was drifting back into sleep.

A set of final whispered words stopped him.

"Proud of you, boy," came from the bed, so softly Hutch could almost believe he'd imagined them. "Damned proud of you."

Unable to stay in the room a moment longer, Hutch took two rapid strides to the door and fled.

When he reached the waiting room, Starsky and the women turned to him expectantly. He must have looked dreadful, for his mother paled and Cathy asked worriedly, "Ken? What's the matter?"

Throat tight, he shook his head. "Let it lie for now, Cath, huh?" he requested. He turned to his mother. "We're going back to the house," he told her. "You want to come with us, or stay here for a while?"

"I planned to stay for a while," Miranda replied, her eyes fixed to his face. "But if you want me to go back with you now, so you can talk about this--"

"No," he refused shakily. "Sorry, Mom, but I just can't right now. I have to--. I need to figure out what it means, I guess, and how I feel about it."

"Well, all right, then," she conceded. "But I'll be home in a couple of hours, if you want to talk then."

"Fine," he said, pulling her into his arms for a hug. "Get something hot for dinner, and call if you don't feel like driving, huh? We'll come out and get you."

"All right," she repeated, and kissed him softly on the cheek. "Be sure to eat some dinner, and maybe take a good hot shower." She turned to Starsky and planted a motherly kiss on him, as well. "You, too, Dave."

Cathy also hugged them both. "I'm going over to the hotel to spend some time with Craig," she whispered into her brother's ear. "Dave's got the number, so if you need anything, call me, okay?"

"Promise," Hutch said, then gave her a final squeeze and extricated himself from her arms. "Come on, Starsk, let's go."

As he strode down the hallway, he was aware of Starsky's curious expression. But fortunately, Starsky knew him better than his mother and sister, and refrained from commenting on his almost frenzied flight from the hospital. He kept his peace during the walk across the parking lot, and the entire trip home. Fleetingly, Hutch felt a pulse of admiration and gratitude for his partner, who managed to restrain his own caretaking urges until they were in a place where he could indulge them freely.

The minute they entered the house, Starsky took Hutch's hand and started upstairs. Docilely, feeling shell-shocked in a way he didn't entirely understand, Hutch allowed himself to be led to his room and gently lowered to a sitting position on the bed. Then Starsky pressed a tender kiss to his brow and waved a hand toward his clothes.

"Off," he instructed, his voice as gentle and loving as the kiss. Too preoccupied to protest, Hutch automatically toed off his shoes and began unbuttoning his shirt. Starsky watched for a moment, then kissed him again--this time on the lips--and walked softly out of the room, kicking off his shoes as he went. A moment later, Hutch heard the shower go on in the adjoining bathroom.

He unzipped his jeans and rose to push them down past his hips to the floor. From the bathroom came the sound of the shower curtain sliding closed, then Starsky reappeared, shedding his shirt as he crossed the room. Still in a weird daze, Hutch didn't move until Starsky had dropped his own jeans and extended his hand again.

"C'mon."

They entered the bathroom. Starsky pulled back the shower curtain and jerked his head toward the water. "In."

Hutch climbed in, closing his eyes blissfully as the water, warmed to just the right temperature, poured over his head. He felt rather than heard Starsky step in, then the shower curtain closed and they were both enveloped in the cleansing shower spray and accompanying steam. Seconds later, Starsky's arms wrapped around him, and that beloved body pressed against his back. His partner didn't speak, and there was nothing urgent or even sexual in the embrace...just Starsky's presence, not asking what was wrong with him, not questioning his mood, simply holding him, as if to help him keep himself together.

A few moments passed with no sound but the water pattering around them. Gradually, Hutch felt his whirling mind begin to slow, resembling itself again instead of the uncontrollable cyclone it had become back in the hospital. As if Starsky could sense that his head had cleared, he pulled back and began to soap his partner's body. Hutch kept his eyes closed and relaxed, letting himself luxuriate in this simple yet eloquent expression of Starsky's love.

When Hutch was clean and rinsed, Starsky began to run the soap over himself. Silently, Hutch took the bar and washed his lover's body with the same care and attention Starsky had given him, adding a few grateful kisses to Starsky's lips and the warm, pulsing indent at the base of his throat. When he finished, he allowed Starsky to move under the spray until the soap was gone, then folded his partner back into his arms.

As Starsky's arms tightened around him in response, he buried his face into the wet, sweet-smelling hair. "Love you," he whispered, and felt a kiss pressed against his neck.

"Love you, too."

Then, without further words, they climbed out of the shower, toweled themselves dry, and slid into the bed. Once under the covers, Hutch reached out and pulled Starsky close again. Burying his fingers in the damp curls, he lowered his lips to his partner's, savoring the familiar taste and softness. Their lips parted, and Hutch slipped his tongue inside. Starsky's met his in sensual greeting as he reveled in the damp warmth, wondering how in the world he'd made it for so many days without this touch, this deliciously tangled oral embrace.

For the moment, he let himself forget his father. Richard was mending, and in the haze of recovery, he'd let down his guard and given Hutch the words he'd always wanted to hear. Proud of you. For the moment, Hutch allowed himself to simply savor the memory, rather than thinking ahead to the time when Richard would recant and return to cool questioning and aloof disapproval.

For now, there was only acceptance. For now, there was only Starsky's body encircled in his arms, head tucked under his chin, mouth now moving with deliberate slowness across the sensitive skin on Hutch's neck and trailing down to his chest. He shivered as one hand preceded Starsky's mouth, brushing down to his abdomen, resting there until Hutch's quivers stilled.

"You okay?" Starsky murmured against him. The feather of breath raised the flesh on Hutch's arms; he shuddered again.

"Yeah," he whispered, kissing the top of Starsky's head. "More okay than I've been in a long time, I think."

Starsky delivered a soft kiss to his chest. His hand continued its journey downward, and Hutch drew in a quiet gasp at his partner's touch, amazed at the arousal that jolted through him. He began to trace circles on Starsky's back, losing himself in the multiple sensations at his chest, his fingertips, his groin.

"Oh, God," he moaned, as the wave of feeling built inside him. "Wait...it's too soon--"

He knew Starsky was smiling; he could feel the curved shape of his lips as another kiss was pressed against his chest, followed by a swift teasing tongue as Starsky's fingers continued their steady rhythm. He tried to hold back, tried to stem the rise of his climax, but Starsky turned his face upward to kiss his chin. Against his thigh, he could feel the pulsing of Starsky's erection, also straining to be released.

"Don't hold back, babe," he heard. "Just go with it."

And he did, pinwheels exploding behind his eyes, trembling with the force of it, clutching Starsky's body until they were both shaking, feeling the damp stickiness of Starsky's orgasm. Then he brought one hand under Starsky's chin, tipped his partner's face up, and kissed him until both their lips were swollen.

"Starsk, you...I..."

"Shhh." Starsky's lips covered his. "I know."

Hutch pulled him close to his chest, tightened his arms until both could barely breathe.

"I love you, Starsk," he told the tangle of curls under his nose. "God, do I love you."

"I told you, Hutch," came the soft reply. "I know." Lips pressed against his chest once more. "Now go to sleep."

He laughed drowsily, then closed his eyes, and obeyed.

**********

Unit One, report.
Auxiliary outer defenses armed and ready, ma'am.
Unit Two?
Phase Two defenses nearly complete--I anticipate readiness in less than sixteen minutes.
Ten. Unit Three.
The neighbors have been outside at the barbecue, ma'am. Phase Three operations will have to be delayed until they finish their meal.
Very well. In the meantime, help Unit Two. Unit Four.
He's making his list, checking it twice, gonna find out who's naughty and nice.
Santa Claus is coming to town.

**********

It was dark outside when Hutch awoke a few hours later. For a moment, he simply lay there, relishing the familiar heaviness of Starsky's head on his shoulder, inhaling the unique scent he knew he'd recognize anywhere. Then, the memory of why they were there crept back into his senses, nudging away his tranquility and replacing it with a restlessness that forbade further sleep. With a reluctant sigh, he dropped a kiss onto Starsky's lips and eased himself gently out of the bed. Silently, he groped for his bathrobe and tied the belt around his waist, then tiptoed out of the room.

As he moved down the dim hallway, he could hear the quiet murmur of Miranda's voice from the master bedroom. He paused and listened for a moment, long enough to learn that she was talking to Cathy and Craig, making plans for breakfast the next morning. Apparently, his father had fallen back to sleep and was, in the traditional words of hospitals everywhere, "resting comfortably." A heaviness descended onto his chest, and he continued down the hall until he reached his grandfather's old study.

The house had originally belonged to Miranda's father, the only grandparent who'd still been living when Hutch was born, and who had died just after Hutch graduated from high school. James Hyde had been that rare man, the kind who could combine refinement and heartiness into a welcoming personality that embraced the universe and accepted everyone as they were, yet somehow made people want to strive to be better. In Hutch's teenage years, when his father had been the most critical and demanding--as well as most absent--as the hospital demanded most of his time, Hutch had never failed to find solace with his grandfather. Somehow, James managed to support young Ken without condemning Richard; perhaps he, like his grandson, held onto the hope that someday the two would be something more like father and son.

Hutch settled himself into his grandfather's plump, worn easy chair. Propping his feet on the ottoman, he gazed around the room that had retained the essence of James' memory, from the pictures of him, his children, and his grandchildren along the walls, and the photographs he himself had taken, to the smell of his tobacco and cologne that somehow still lingered in the air after all these years. Though Richard and Miranda had redone much of the house after James died and left the residence to his daughter, this room remained largely untouched. The only new item was a baby grand piano that gleamed in one corner--the battered upright that had once stood there now resided in Hutch's apartment, a legacy from the grandfather who had taught him to love music as he had.

"Hey."

He looked up to find Starsky peering in the door. With a chuckle he shook his head, realizing he wasn't really surprised to see his partner there. Starsky gave him an answering smile and entered the room, closing the door quietly behind him and sinking into a chair opposite Hutch's. He looked around for a moment, his smile broadening as he, too, absorbed the room's atmosphere, then turned his eyes to Hutch.

"I'm okay," Hutch assured him as if he had spoken.

"You sure?" Starsky pressed, his voice dubious. "That was a minor meltdown you had at the hospital. What was goin' on?"

Hutch leaned his head against the back of the chair and folded his hands in his lap. "I'm...not entirely sure," he said slowly.

"What did your dad say?" Starsky asked. "Somethin' upsetting about you and me?"

"No," Hutch replied. "In fact, it was just the opposite, it was like--" He shook his head, frowning. "It's hard to describe, Starsk. I mean, he was...it was like my dad but not my dad, like some 'Twilight Zone' version of my real dad meeting my image of what a father should really be."

Starsky blinked at him. "You wanna run that one by me again?" he requested. "In case you forgot, we haven't had a lotta sleep."

Hutch leaned forward and laced his fingers through Starsky's, and started over. "He was--. I went in there, Starsk, and he smiled at me." He shook his head. "That sounds ridiculous, to say out loud, but I honestly can't remember the last time he looked at me when I didn't feel like he was inspecting me for the inevitable flaws." He chuckled ironically. "'Course, he thought I was still in college, which is about the last thing I ever did that he approved of."

"So, he smiled and...then what?" Starsky prompted, as if he sensed there was more to the story.

"Well, that was so damned surreal, it just got to me," Hutch admitted. "He asked about school, told me to take care of Mom, and started to drift back to sleep. I got ready to go, then he woke up a little, said he was proud of me, and dropped off." He chuckled again, this time with a hint of sheepish disbelief at his own reaction. "Sounds crazy, I know."

"Run that last part by me again?" Starsky asked. "The part about being proud of you."

"Yeah, I know." Hutch shrugged and, to his chagrin, found himself fighting back tears. "I'm telling you, Starsk, honest to God, I can't remember the last time I heard him say that." He tipped his head back again and focused on not bursting into sobs like a five-year-old. Almost before he could draw breath, he felt Starsky's arms envelop him from the arm of the chair. "Stupid, like I said."

"I get it," Starsky assured him, and Hutch felt a kiss brush against his temple. "Sounds like there's a part of you that knows that won't last. Makes sense it would make you sad."

"Yeah." Hutch swallowed the tears at last and drew a shaking breath. "Yeah, that's pretty much it. If, as Collette said, he'll be back up to speed by tomorrow, he'll have a damned different reaction to seeing me."

Starsky's hand nudged him forward and began a gentle massage across his taut shoulders. "So...what do you wanna do?"

Hutch released another breath. "What we came here for, I guess," he said. "Find the woman who attacked him and get her some help. Whether he acknowledges it or not, I'll know I did something for everybody--including him."

**********

All units, report.
Unit One, ready.
Unit Two, ready.
Unit Three, ready.
Unit Four?
Unit Four?
He knows when you've been bad or good, so BE GOOD FOR GOODNESS SAKE

**********

The next morning, Starsky and Hutch were startled awake by a knock on the bedroom door. Both froze. Miranda knowing about their relationship was one thing. Having her see them in bed together was something else again. But the door remained discreetly closed; there was only another tap and then Hutch's mother's voice:

"Ken?"

Hutch cleared his throat. "Yes, Mom?"

"Jason Brady's on the phone for you," she called. "He says the neighbors have spotted Janine Perkins at the house."

Hutch threw back the covers and grabbed the phone from the nightstand. "Yeah, Jason?"

"She's at the house," Brady's nasal voice announced. "I'm headed over there with my deputies--"

"Hold on a minute," Hutch interrupted urgently. "Based on what Dr. Reed said, there's a very good chance she's added new reinforcements. You go charging in there with guns blazing, and a lot of people are going to end up hurt, including her."

There was a short pause on the other end, then Brady snapped, "You got another suggestion?"

"Let Starsky and me go out to Sutherland, pick up Dr. Reed," Hutch said rapidly. "We'll meet you a block east of Janine's house in..." He glanced at his watch. "...forty-five minutes."

Brady was silent again, then: "All right, Ken," he said sullenly. "But this better not turn into some coddle-fest for that girl. One way or another, I want her off the streets before this day is over."

"Our way doesn't work, we'll listen to whatever you have to say," Hutch told him, mentally crossing his fingers. It would be a cold day in Hell before he'd let the likes of Jason Brady lay hands on that woman's fragile psyche. Richard would never forgive him if--

Shaking the thought impatiently from his head, he cradled the phone and turned, dropping the robe and grabbing his clothes from a chair beside the nightstand. "Starsk--"

But Starsky was already out of bed, jeans on, pulling a shirt over his head. "C'mon," he said, moving toward the door and snagging his shoes on the way. "I'll drive."

**********

They arrived at the appointed place in precisely forty-two minutes. Anxious to help, Miranda had agreed to contact Marty while they were on their way to Sutherland, and the psychologist was waiting at the gate when they arrived. Hutch was again navigating while Starsky handled the wheel, and he leapt out to open the door for her. She slipped in, Hutch slammed the door behind her, and almost before he could close his own door, Starsky had swung the car around and peeled back onto the street.

"Brady said the neighbors had seen her?" Marty said breathlessly. Sparing a quick glance into the rearview mirror, Hutch saw her bracing herself against the door and the back of the seat. "Did they say how she looked?"

Hutch shook his head. "Only that she was in and out of the house for most of the morning," he replied. "They had the sense that she'd been there last night, bringing things in, but every time they approached, she'd disappear again."

"Now's the time we need that positive figure from her past, Doc," Starsky said grimly. "Any more information about her brother?""

"As a matter of fact, yes, but it's not good news," Marty said dispiritedly as she dug through the voluminous purse she'd dragged into the car. "He moved out of the area last year. I tried to call him as soon as you left yesterday, but he's actually in transit on a business trip." She sighed. "It's a shame. He's one of the few supportive figures in her life. After their parents died, he visited her regularly, and he's the one who helped set her up in the house. If he were here to help, and I know he'd come, it would make getting her out of that house much easier."

"Damn." Hutch punched a fist lightly against the dashboard. "So close and yet so far."

"Well, we may have gotten a small break in this matter, if we're desperate enough to try a little deception...ah, here it is." She emerged from the purse at last with a fat manila envelope. "These are some things I pulled out of Janine's file...some information about her brother, and...here."

Eyes focused on the road, Starsky caught her hand in his peripheral vision.

"Look like anybody you know?" Marty asked.

There was a grunt from his partner. Consumed with curiosity, Starsky looked over to see the picture, but the angle was wrong and he was driving too fast to take his eyes off the road for long. "What?"

"Well, it seems Janine's brother bears a striking resemblance to you," Marty said triumphantly. "So if you're up for it, I can give you a little coaching and you might be able to gain some of her trust, perhaps get her to drop her guard for a moment, or even talk her into coming out and with me."

Examining the photograph, Hutch agreed there were similarities between Michael Perkins and his partner, but he had misgivings about this on a number of levels. On one hand, Starsky's charm and undercover acting skills had worked a lot of strange magic; he'd convinced people he was everything from a fey hairdresser to an Argentinean dance instructor. On the other hand, Janine was sharp, well-armed--and floridly psychotic. He'd be hesitant even in familiar territory, and now their back-up was an unknown at best and potentially hostile at worst. "Let's talk about it when we get to the house."

"We got about fifteen minutes," Starsky announced from the front seat. "Just in case, why don't you give me the 'Reader's Digest' condensed version of this guy?"

Thirteen minutes later, Starsky pulled the rental car up behind Brady's patrol car and threw it into park. He, Hutch, and Marty tumbled out and hurried to where Brady and four other men had gathered around a large sheet of paper. Brady looked up as they approached.

"Blueprint of the house," he responded to Hutch's inquiring look. "I got it from the city after we stumbled across her arsenal the first time around."

Hutch nodded in grudging admiration. It was a relief to know Brady wasn't a total idiot. "So what's the plan?"

Brady pointed. "The back yard is fenced in, but the neighbors said there used to be a missing board back in the corner, behind one of those forsythia bushes. It's been there since before Janine moved in, so it's possible she never knew about it and never got it fixed. If we can send some of our team back there--just in a holding pattern while the doc has her say--" he added quickly to forestall Hutch's protest, "then we might be able to prevent her from running back into the woods like she did the first time."

He pointed again. "Jamison, I want you, Huff, and Raye on the sides, two each. Take a corner, keep close, and for God's sake, watch the damned windows. First sign of trouble, you radio and we'll bring in the reinforcements." He turned to Marty and the two detectives. "Okay, let's hear what you got in mind."

Marty explained rapidly about the brother. "What we'd like to do--what we're suggesting--" she amended as Brady began to scowl. "--is for Detective Starsky to approach the house from the front door. Just knock, and if she doesn't answer--which I doubt she will--he can perhaps try to communicate with her a little through the door."

"Not too much," Starsky interjected, seeing the dubious look on Brady's face. "I figure the more talking she does, the less chance she'll figure out who I am."

"Now wait a minute," Hutch protested. "I thought we were going to talk about this before we decided for sure."

"Detective Hutchinson, I know you're particularly worried about the danger, given what happened to your father--" Marty began.

"Damn right I am," Hutch agreed hotly. He didn't think it was necessary to spell out the multiple concerns he had for his partner's safety. Starsky already knew, Marty probably suspected, and he wasn't about to give Brady more fuel for his contemptuous fire.

"Hutch, it's probably our only shot at getting her outta there without force," Starsky urged. "I know you don't like it, but I think we have to take the chance."

Hutch sighed; he knew he was beaten. "All right, all right," he relented, then leveled a finger at his partner. "But you be careful."

"What the hell good is all this play-acting gonna do?" Brady said, incredulous. "You think she's just gonna open the door and waltz out?"

Marty shook her head. "No, I doubt that'll happen," she admitted. "But it might soften her up a little, make her less afraid, get her reoriented to the present. Then maybe she'll let me talk to her and persuade her to come out."

"If nothing else," Starsky chimed in. "It'll distract her, give us some time to close off the other escape routes."

Brady eyed them all, then set his jaw stubbornly. "All right," he relented. "But I want him up there with back-up."

"No way," Starsky and Hutch both said simultaneously, for different reasons. Brady interrupted.

"No buts," he declared. "Either he goes with a team behind him, or we do it my way from jump start."

"C'mon, man," Starsky said with exaggerated patience. "You don't really think her brother's gonna go up there with a SWAT team behind her, do you?"

"For God's sake, Brady, even you should see the problem with that," Hutch said in exasperation. "Believe me, I'd prefer to have the National Guard up there, too, but this girl is paranoid, remember? Cops at the door just makes it easier for her to sense the trick." He jerked a thumb at his partner. "And he'll be right in the line of fire."

"I have to go up alone, at least the first time," Starsky added.

"I've just about had it with you two California hotheads thinking you can call all the shots," Brady spat. "Now, dammit, this is my town and my case, and those are my men out there, too. Now we either do it my way, or you boys can turn around and go right back home."

He glared at the two detectives. Hutch opened his mouth, but Marty interrupted.

"All right, that's enough," she commanded. "I couldn't care less about this macho power game you three are playing. What I do care about is getting Janine out of that house and back to the help she needs, without anybody else getting hurt. Now let's quit wasting time, or I may just decide to handle this on my own."

There was a moment of startled silence from the three police officers. Hutch glanced over at his partner, and found Starsky stifling a grin. Biting his lip to restrain his own smile, Hutch turned back to the psychologist.

"You're right, Marty. I'm sorry," he apologized sincerely. "Come on, Jason, let's deal with this like cops, huh? Surely there's some kind of compromise we can reach here."

Brady's lips thinned, but he nodded curtly.

They finally agreed that Jason's men would accompany Starsky to the front door, but only after a change of clothing. They kept on their flak vests, concealed under gray t-shirts, but shed the blue uniform shirts with their telltale patches and badges. In the t-shirts and blue slacks, guns tucked out of sight in the back of their belts, they could be mistaken for neighbors, or simply passersby. Starsky would approach the door first, while the officers stayed below the porch, out of sight but able to see inside the house.

Hutch, meanwhile, took a place with Brady and Marty at the end of the walk. There was a small bush there; it barely camouflaged them, but at least it was something. Holding his breath, he watched while Starsky nodded at the two deputies and mounted the steps to the front porch. His head tilted back, and Hutch knew he was scanning the walls and the porch roof for any sign that new weapons had been added out there. He apparently found nothing, for he stepped to one side of the door and tapped on it sharply.

"Janine?" he called.

There was a collective holding of breath. Starsky tapped again.                                                        "Janine? It's Michael, can you come on out or let me in?"

**********

You better watch out, you better not--
Michael?
What's he doing here?

**********

Something caught the edge of Hutch's eye--sharply, he saw a curtain flutter back into place. Silently, he nudged Brady and flicked his eyes toward the attic. Brady followed his gaze and nodded once.

"Janine?"

There was another, almost unbearable pause, then an upstairs window opened, not more than a couple of inches. A beat, then a small, weary voice spoke.

"Michael?"

Despite himself, despite the pessimism from years of similar situations, Hutch couldn't restrain the hope that it would be just this easy, that she'd believe Starsky was her brother and would surrender herself to him.

Starsky backed away a few steps from the door. "Yeah, sweetie, it's me," he called, his voice full of genuine warmth and concern and worry. "Dr. Reed called me, Janine. She's real worried about you and how you're doin'."

There was a long silence and Hutch began to scan the other windows of the house, willing Starsky to do the same so he wouldn't be ambushed by one of Janine's inventions. Then the small voice spoke again.

"Not so good, Michael," Janine said sadly. "I think...I think I hurt somebody. I think...I know he was from the Project, Michael, he had to be, and I didn't want to hurt him, but the voices...they said I had to or he'd take me back there, and you know what they're like, Michael, you know what they did." They heard a sob escape from the open window. "I'm scared, Michael, I'm scared. I can't be hurt like that again. And no matter what I do, they just won't leave me alone."

"I know, baby, I know," Starsky said soothingly. "But you know the voices don't always tell you the truth, remember? They're that part of you that's still scared from what happened before, but what they want you to do is only going to make matters worse."

Amazing, Hutch thought, impressed yet again by his partner's skill. I almost believe him myself.

There was a long silence. Above the porch, the window suddenly flew wide open and the curtains were yanked back. A slender girl leaned out.

Hutch's heartbeat accelerated. As he watched, her dark eyes darted across the lawn, skipped over him, Brady, and Marty. She peered to the sides of the house, but the angle of the roof, and the positions of the officers prevented her from spotting the deputies crouched there. Hutch saw the emotions ripple across her face: hope and a tentative delight at the return of her beloved brother. Then, her head tipped. Her eyes seemed to flicker backward, and her expression changed to fear and suspicion.

"What? No, that's Michael, he can't be--. No. He'd never do that, he'd never be part of them--"

She paused, listening, and Hutch couldn't restrain a pang of sympathy at the tortured look that washed over her.

"I can't," she wailed. "What if it is...what if it's really him and I hurt him?"

Hutch tensed, but restrained himself from charging across the lawn. On the porch, he saw Starsky shift, readying himself for whatever might come next. The two deputies had reached behind their backs, hands poised on their guns.

Janine began to sob again. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry…they say you're not Michael, you're just a Project experiment cloned to look like him, and you've brought the police to kill us because we know." She pressed a hand to her mouth; even from a distance, Hutch could see tears pouring down her face. "I'm sorry, Michael. I'm sorry."

The window slammed down, and a moment later, a half-dozen small doors flipped open on the house's face.

"Get down!" Hutch yelled as he hit the dirt and dragged Marty with him. "Get down, get down!"

Whatever it was that began raining down on the lawn wasn't bullets, but the whistle one made as it zipped past Hutch's head sounded plenty dangerous. He shoved Marty toward the car. "Get in or behind the car, and don't come out until one of us comes to get you," he ordered. "Go!"

Without hesitating, she disappeared behind the rental car, whose paint was beginning to chip from the onslaught.

Hutch turned back toward the house, just in time to see the porch drop under Starsky's feet.

Shit, he swore to himself, as he ran his eyes over the lawn for a safe path to the door. Oldest trick in the book, not even that clever, and we fell for it, dammit, we fell for it.

The two deputies dropped to their bellies and began to hitch around the corner of the house. They hadn't gone ten feet when one yelped as the turf beneath him collapsed and his hands plunged into foul-smelling liquid. His companion suffered the same fate, and in seconds, both had to scramble back to the sidewalk where Hutch still waited, watching for a break in the assault.

"What is it?" one of them moaned as he scrubbed frantically at the substance on his hands. "Jesus, it stinks and it's starting to itch!"

"Go back there," Hutch told him briskly, pushing him toward the car. "Have the doc go back to the squad car, call an ambulance."

The sing of the initial missiles had abated at last. Crouched low, Hutch took a few cautious steps onto the lawn. Now he could see that the tiny projectiles were each made of two blades, formed together into a cross and filed so each edge was razor-sharp. His heart racing harder, he picked his way across the glittering little sea and jumped up onto the porch, where he barely stopped himself from following Starsky into the gaping hole.

Dropping to his knees, ignoring the bite of a stray blade in his knee, he peered cautiously into the opening. As his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he saw that the hole was actually the top of a simple slide, no doubt leading into the basement. Taking a deep breath, he lowered himself onto it, bracing himself against the sides, and began a controlled descent.

Just as he reached the basement, he heard steps on the porch. They paused, then he heard Brady's voice. "Easy, boys, easy."

Hutch started to ease himself from the end of the slide to the basement floor, but lost control as his palms encountered a slick coat of grease on the device's sides. He tumbled to the concrete, flinching once as his ankle twisted beneath him, and again as he fell forward and a half-dozen more razor blades bit into his hands. "Easy," he heard beside him, "It's all right, Janine, it's just a friend. Nothing to be afraid of."

Hutch groped to one side, found the bulk of a cinderblock wall, and pulled himself slowly and fully to his feet. Almost immediately, he found his left ankle wouldn't hold his weight; cursing silently, he propped himself against the wall in the most casual stance he could muster.

Starsky stood completely still beside him. Though his eyes flicked over to Hutch, he never stopped speaking, in a crooning, soothing tone to the dark-haired girl who was now pressed against the opposite wall, eyes huge with fright, hands clutched behind her back. "Who are you?" she whispered to Starsky, and Hutch could hear the terror in her voice. "They sent you, I know they did, so why do you sound like you care?"

"Because I do," Starsky said matter-of-factly. He slowly gestured toward his partner. "I do, and my friend Hutch does, and so does Dr. Marty."

"Dr. Marty told us the voices came back," Hutch said, his own voice quiet and gentle. Mindful of Marty's instructions, he and Starsky used the psychologist's name at every opportunity, in an effort to draw Janine back into reality. "And we know they've been asking you to do things you don't want to do."

She nodded vigorously. "They have," she said sadly. "But I did--" She glanced around timidly, then stepped closer to Starsky and spoke confidentially. "I managed to fool them, a little."

"Yeah?" Starsky gave her his best big-brother smile. "How's that?"

"Well--" She looked around again and went on. "I made the bombs small, and I lied when I told them they exploded."

Hutch assumed she meant the tiny missiles that coated the lawn and the basement floor.

"Hey," Starsky said admiringly. "That's pretty good; don't you think so, Hutch?"

"You bet," Hutch agreed. "I bet Dr. Marty would think so, too."

"What else did you do to fool them?" Starsky asked. He was shifting his weight bit by bit, and Hutch knew he was changing his posture to a more casual one so the interaction became more a conversation than a standoff.

Janine giggled, and Hutch was startled by the change in her appearance. For a moment, delight and mischief replaced the fear in her eyes.

"The pits in the yard?" she said. Both men nodded. "The voices mixed up acid to put in them, but I found it before they could pour it in."

"Yeah?" Starsky smiled again and leaned against the wall beside Hutch. "So what did you put in instead?"

She giggled again, darting quick glances around the room as if to be sure she wouldn't be overheard. "Itching powder," she revealed. "I developed a special base so it would dissolve but still retain the important properties."

Hutch heard the sound of footsteps in the living room and whistled, trying to keep her talking to cover the noise. "Clever," he said admiringly. "Anything else?"

As if on cue, there was a banging overhead, accompanied by the loud curses of Brady and his deputies.

"They found the web," Janine said softly, pressing herself against the wall, her face fearful once more. She tilted her head to one side, and Hutch saw her eyes flicker. "I know," she whispered. "But you don't understand…I can't really hurt them."

"That web's pretty clever." Hutch said, trying to recapture her attention. "I expect you feel pretty safe with it up there."

She turned her eyes to him. Her pupils were so huge from fear, her irises were barely visible. His heart constricted for her.

"They did it to me," she whispered. "All the time. Razor blades. Cutting me."

She extended one arm, and Hutch's gut clenched as he saw hundreds of tiny cuts crisscrossing the pale white flesh. Again she tipped her head.

"Why can't I show them? They seem nice…they know Dr. Marty." Her shoulders hunched. "Stop saying that! I am not!"

"Listen to me, Janine," Hutch said urgently, raising his own voice a notch so she could hear him over the cacophony in her own head. "No one has a right to do that kind of thing to you--or anyone." He extended his hand.

"Just come with us, okay?" Starsky coaxed. "Dr. Marty's outside, waiting to help you--to make sure nobody hurts you like that ever again."

"The voices say it was my own fault," she whimpered, shaking her head as if to clear the hallucinations away. "They said I never protect myself enough, that I'm too stupid, that the weapons I make are too feeble to keep them away."

"But remember what Dr. Marty said about the voices?" Starsky said gently. "I know they think they're trying to help, to defend you, but what they're really doing is making things worse, making you do things you don't want to do."

A half-sob escaped from her lips. "Like with Dr. Richard," she gasped. "I know I hurt him, I know I did, but that time…I just couldn't stop them. They said, they said it was--"

She pressed herself farther into the wall, hands trembling. Her eyes changed somehow, became more distant, less focused. As she slid down to a crouching position, she began to sing in a high child's voice:

"You better watch out…you better not cry…you better not pout, I'm tellin' you why…"

Hutch sidled a cautious glance at his partner. Starsky's eyes flicked upward, then to the stairs. Hutch nodded. They would keep her talking, try to keep her calm and confined to a small, controlled area, until Brady and his men untangled themselves and followed them to the basement.

"I didn't want to, I swear." Janine's increasingly despairing voice replaced the childish singing. "It's like I wasn't even there, really. I just woke up and there was blood everywhere, and then they told me...they told me they'd killed him." She wrapped her arms over her head and began to sob again, gut-wrenching sounds that wracked her slender body and made Hutch's throat ache in sympathy.

"No," Starsky said firmly, taking a subtle step closer. "You didn't kill Dr. Richard, Janine. He's going to be fine."

Her head shot up, and her eyes devoured his face, searching for any sign of trickery. "No," she whispered. "You can't know that…how can you know?" Her gaze darted over to Hutch, and he saw her eyes narrow as her head tipped again. "No…it's not him, I'm telling you, he's different, he doesn't have a beard…" She began to rock back and forth, moaning. "Nooo…no, please, don't…I can't do it, you understand? I don't want to kill them, just LEAVE ME ALONE!" Her voice had risen into a near-scream. Her hands, the muscles so tight they looked like claws, shot up to her ears and she began to keen.

Hutch couldn't bear her anguish another minute. He knew she'd come terrifyingly close to killing his father. He knew they'd only begun to discover the arsenal of weaponry that defended the house, and he knew it was possible that she'd booby-trapped herself in a final effort to escape. But watching her, her hands clamped over her ears, tendons jutting from her neck as she howled her grief and terror, her suffering was so intense that the impulse to comfort her overcame the one to capture her. He stepped forward, ignoring the pain in his ankle, and gathered her into his arms.

Sobbing, she buried her face in his chest.

"It's all right, sweetheart, it's all right," Hutch murmured, stroking the tangled dark hair that was full of cobwebs.

He felt Starsky press close against him, partially to contain Janine, but also to provide some support to Hutch, who was precariously balanced on one good foot and his twisted ankle. Slowly, Starsky moved them toward the wall; Hutch sensed his hand working its way around Janine's back and down to the waistband of her skirt.

She jerked, but they both held her tight. Starsky was still for a moment, then slowly he extracted a knife--short-bladed but clearly honed to a razor's edge--from the clever sheath tied under her blouse.

"You don't want this anymore, anyway, huh?" he murmured as she made a feeble grab for it. "Without it, the voices'll have to work harder to get what they want. Let's get rid of it, whatdya say?"

Her hands trembled in the air as if to reach for the knife again, then fell to her sides. She nodded.

"'Atta girl," Starsky said approvingly.

Brady's men appeared at the top of the stairs, preceded by the blinding light of a flashlight. Janine winced and shrank closer to the two detectives.

"Ken? Dave?" Brady called, the light swinging past them as it swept the area at the bottom of the stairs. "What've we got?"

"Everything's under control," Starsky called. He took a few steps toward the stairs so he wasn't shouting in Janine's ear, but kept his hand on the girl to detect any sudden moves. "Why don't you come on down--"

"Wait!" Above Janine's head, Hutch laid a hand on his partner's shoulder; he'd been watching the light and the area it was illuminating. "Look...there."

"Shine the light at the stairs and leave it there, okay?" Starsky requested.

Brady did, and now he, his deputies, and Starsky could see what Hutch had spotted. The bottom half of the staircase wasn't stairs at all, but a cleverly designed and fashioned cloth façade. As was the case in the other defenses, a tumble down the stairs wouldn't kill, but would certainly injure pursuers enough to delay capture. Hutch shook his head.

Marty pushed her way between Brady and his men. "Janine?"

The girl lifted her head from Hutch's chest.

For the first time, Hutch saw recognition of the present flash into her eyes and stay there. "Oh, Dr. Marty," she whispered. "They're so bad, the voices have been so bad. I know I hurt Dr. Richard, I know I did bad things…gonna find out who's naughty or nice…"

"It's all right, Janine," Marty told her, her voice maternal even from a distance. "Dr. Richard is recovering, and nobody else got seriously hurt. It looks like you outwitted the voices this time."

"I tried, Dr. Marty," Janine said. Suddenly, she smothered an enormous yawn. "I really tried…I'm so tired, though."

"We're going to take you back to Sutherland, back to your old room, and give you something to make the voices pipe down. Remember, how we do that? You'll go to sleep for a little while, and when you wake up, you'll be in charge again, not them."

"Promise?"

"You bet," Marty said confidently. "Now come on upstairs and let's get out of here. The voices have had you busy for the last few weeks, and the police need to clear out all the weapons."

"I didn't want to make them, but they insisted," Janine confessed. "So I tried to make them small, so they wouldn't hurt anyone too badly."

"I know," Marty told her. "You did good. Now, are you ready to come upstairs?"

"Yes, I guess so." She began to move, but she was still restrained by the two detectives. She looked up at them questioningly.

"You mind if we come with you?" Starsky asked.

"No, I guess not," she said with a shrug. "There's another set of stairs on the other end of the basement. We should go soon, though; I think your friend might be hurt."

Starsky raised his eyebrows as they crossed the dim dampness to the second staircase; Hutch trying unsuccessfully--and unnecessarily--to disguise his limp. "You're one smart cookie," he praised her. "Managed to keep those a secret from the voices, didn't you?" She nodded, one small hand covering another yawn. He smiled at her, then directed his next words to Hutch. "You gonna make it?"

"Yeah," Hutch said staunchly, but the ankle had begun to throb and he was glad when they reached the top of the stairs, which opened into the side yard. Marty, Brady, and the deputies were waiting there. Brady and his men showed some sensitivity for once by declining to cuff the now drowsy girl and letting Marty gently guide her into one of the patrol cars. She spoke with Janine for several minutes, leaving the door open, then eventually climbed in herself and pulled the door shut. The car, Brady at the wheel, pulled away. The deputies followed.

Hutch was profoundly grateful that any further confrontation with the sheriff had been avoided. He and Starsky sidestepped the pits of itching powder, Hutch leaning on Starsky's shoulder, both chuckling despite themselves at Janine's ingenuity. It seemed to take forever, but finally they arrived at the car. Starsky helped Hutch into the passenger seat, then rounded the sedan to slide behind the wheel.

They looked at each other and, in unison, their shoulders slumped.

"C'mon, partner," Starsky said, laying a hand on Hutch's. "Let's go get you taken care of."

**********

It was nearly three hours later before Hutch finally emerged from St. John's emergency room, hands bandaged, ankle wrapped and crutches dispensed, and a little lightheaded from fatigue and the painkiller they'd given him. An x-ray had confirmed the ankle wasn't broken, and the cuts on his hands were all superficial. Nevertheless, the process of cleaning, disinfecting, and bandaging, punctuated by long stretches of boredom as he waited for doctors and technicians, had taken their toll. He was ready to do nothing more than return home--preferably to Bay City--and put this whole thing behind him. As he entered the waiting room, however, he was greeted not only by Starsky, but by his mother and sister, whose expressions were oddly subdued.

"What?" he said wearily, as he maneuvered his way to them. Without asking, Starsky took his jacket and the small bag of aftercare supplies from his hands.

Miranda and Cathy said nothing. Miranda took a step forward and laid one hand on her son's arm, but didn't speak. Cathy gnawed at her lower lip.

"What?" Hutch repeated irritably, in no mood for games.

"Ken," Miranda began, then uncharacteristically faltered.

Once again, it was up to Starsky, who was experiencing most of this secondhand and was thus less directly affected by it. "Your dad's back to his old self," he told Hutch bluntly. "Your mom and Cathy think you should see him."

"Now?" Hutch blurted. "Aw, Mom, I know this is important, but I'm beat. Can't this wait until tomorrow?"

Miranda took a deep breath and seemed to find her voice. "I don't think that's a good idea," she said definitely. "If you wait, it'll just get more difficult…and I know you, dear. By tomorrow, you'll find some reason for you and Dave to leave early, before you have a chance to see him."

Hutch looked over at Cathy, who was no help at all. She simply gazed back at him, then said quietly, "I think she's right, Ken."

Before Hutch could even consult him, Starsky agreed. "Might as well get it over with, Blintz."

Hutch sighed and ran one hand down his face. "All right, all right," he muttered. "I don't have the energy to fight all of you at once." He adjusted the crutches under his arms and looked down the hall. "Where is he?"

"I'll show you. No, better yet, I'll take you."

Starsky hurried over to the admittance desk and, after a brief conversation with the nurse, disappeared into the area from which Hutch had just emerged. Uncomprehending, Hutch blinked after him, then scowled as his partner returned, pushing a wheelchair in front of him.

"Uh, no," he refused. "No way."

Expertly, Starsky steered the chair behind him and nudged it against his knees. Given a choice between sitting or falling, Hutch reluctantly lowered himself into the conveyance and propped the crutches onto the footrest.

"All right, Jeeves," he said, trying to make the best of a less than ideal situation. "Forward ho."

**********

They had moved Richard to a private room on the third floor. As Starsky wheeled him off the elevator and started down the hall, Hutch felt his palms grow damp and he wished Starsky would slow down. A couple of nurses passed by, smiling in recognition, but he didn't hear their greetings past the pulsing of blood in his ears.

Then he shook himself. Get a grip, he told himself firmly. The worst he can do is what he's already done. You survived that once, and you can do it again. Even as the thought faded, however, he knew the problem wasn't just facing Richard's disapproval. It was, in fact, precisely the opposite.

In the year since his father had effectively disinherited him, Hutch had thought of him less and less frequently. He'd come to terms with the idea that Richard would probably never accept him and Starsky, that he'd never be the kind of father Hutch had always wanted him to be, and would never give him what the adolescent Hutch had always yearned for. Last summer, he'd come face to face with that, and though it had hurt like hell for a month or so, the pain had gradually faded. He'd increasingly believed what others had been telling him all along: that his father's opinion mattered less than how his lifestyle felt to him and to the people who did accept him for who he was. Recently, he'd realized how grateful he was, now that he was no longer required to spend time or energy trying to get Richard to come around or simply holding up under his criticism, that instead he could turn his full attention to people he actually enjoyed being with.

He'd thought he'd moved on, but this trip home had shown him differently--that there was still the tiniest flicker of hope still alive inside him. Despite his efforts to keep it under control, Richard's greeting the day before had, absurdly, fed the flame.

In short, he wasn't afraid of receiving the criticism—or even the condemnation. He was afraid of losing the hope.

They had arrived at Richard's room. Taking a deep breath, he positioned the crutches and hoisted himself to his feet.

"Hey," came Starsky's quiet voice, close to his ear. "It'll be okay."

Starsky's hand squeezed his shoulder, caressed it briefly, then left. The voice came back to his ear.

"I'll be right outside when you come out."

Hutch nodded. He laid one hand on the door, noting the damp palm print he left, and pushed it open. Starsky's hand was there again, holding the door while he entered the room. He looked over his shoulder. Starsky winked and retreated, and the door hushed closed.

Richard again sat propped up by two fluffy white pillows, but otherwise he bore no resemblance to the man Hutch had seen yesterday. His reading glasses were perched at the tip of his nose, he had a number of charts and articles strewn on the bed in front of him, and he was talking on the phone. When Hutch entered, he looked up.

Hutch had braced himself, so the distinct chill in Richard's eyes only passed by him like a cool puff of wind. Richard regarded him for a moment, then inclined his head toward a chair by the bed and continued his conversation.

"I'm sorry, Marty, please continue," he said. Hutch mentally raised an eyebrow at the mention of Dr. Reed's name. "And so how is she? Yes…all right, that sounds like a good combination at this point, given that she's been off her medication for a few weeks now. Was she hurt? No, well, that's good. I beg your pardon?"

He listened for several moments, while Hutch heard snatches of Marty's voice over the receiver.

"Really," Richard said at last. "Was he now?" His eyes flicked to Hutch briefly. "Well, to be honest, Marty, I'd really expect nothing less, given the circumstances, though he certainly could have been more careful. Yes, all right--" He stopped abruptly as the voice grew louder and more insistent; his eyes returned to his son.

Hutch wondered if the very slight thaw he saw there was nothing more than his imagination.

"I see," Richard said at last. "No, I…I suspect you have a very valid point, Marty. Yes, well, I'll…take that into consideration. Please tell Janine I'll be in to see her as soon as I can, and she's to take good care of herself and not worry. We'll talk about all of this then."

He hung up the phone and removed his reading glasses. Having made his way to the chair and leaning the crutches against the wall, Hutch sat, absently moving his hands up and down his thighs, trying to divest his palms of some of the perspiration. The glasses pointed toward him.

"Please stop that, if you don't mind," Richard requested. "There's no need for you to fidget."

"Yes, sir," Hutch said automatically.

There was a moment of silence, then Richard took in a breath. "Well," he began. "It seems you had a very interesting afternoon."

"You could say that, yes."

"Janine is a very ill young woman," Richard went on. "This isn't the first time she's barricaded herself, and in the past, the clumsy efforts of law enforcement officials have done little more than make matters worse and feed her paranoia."

Hutch's heart sank as he steeled himself for a lecture on the inadequacy of his procedures.

"However," Richard said, looking down at the glasses he was folding and unfolding in his hands. Smothering a nervous smile, Hutch realized his father was fidgeting.

"However," Richard repeated, resolutely clamping both hands on the glasses and placing them in his lap. "It appears you and…your partner handled the situation with a great deal of sensitivity. According to Marty."

"We didn't want to hurt her, Dad," Hutch said. "We understood how sick she is, and we wanted to get her the help she needed, with the least amount of damage to everyone."

"Yes, well," Richard said, "a lot of people don't understand that."

There was another awkward silence, then Richard cleared his throat. "Marty had nothing but positive things to say about you and…Mr. Starsky," he said, somewhat stiffly. "The only thing I felt you could have handled differently was…well, it sounds like you put taking care of her ahead of your own safety."

Sound familiar? flicked through Hutch's mind.

"Marty, however, refused to…criticize you on that point."

Unbelievably, His lips twitched, and Hutch realized his father was on the verge of a smile.

"She reminded me, in no uncertain terms I might add, that I had done precisely the same thing when I chose to go to Janine's house alone." He cleared his throat again, though this time it almost resembled a chuckle. "Marty seems to feel this kind of…how did she put it? Oh, yes--chivalry--runs in the family."

Hutch felt his own lips twitch momentarily.

"There are many things I don't understand about you, Ken, and I won't pretend that I do," his father went on. "I have absolutely no comprehension of why you would choose a sexual lifestyle that will bring nothing but censure raining down on you and…David--"

"That's not true," Hutch interrupted, though he noted his father's use of Starsky's first name. "There are plenty of people around us who not only accept it, but are glad that we've…that are happy that we're happy."

"Yes, well, that may be," Richard harrumphed. "But I don't approve of it, and again, I won't pretend that I do. Despite what you may think, I still believe homosexuality is a psychiatric disorder, and I won't stop hoping that you'll find a way to…get past it."

"I'm afraid you're wasting your breath," Hutch told him, but his tone was gentle. For the first time, he thought he and his father were beginning--just beginning--to make the attempt to listen, to really hear what they each were saying, rather than trying to come up with words to defend their own positions.

"Yes, I suspect I am," Richard agreed. "But that won't stop me from hoping." His fingers began to fiddle with the glasses again and, with an impatient noise, he tossed them onto the bed, where they landed at the edge of the sea of paperwork. "What Marty has told me--again, in no uncertain terms--is, I realize what your mother has been trying to tell me for years, that you and I are much more alike than I have thought. It's somewhat chagrining that I've missed that, but, well, there it is."

"Dad--" Hutch began, but his father raised a hand.

"I don't believe for a minute that this recent incident, however life-threatening, has somehow made me 'see the light'," he informed Hutch. "I suspect, rather, that the years of hearing your mother say it have gradually wedged the concept into my hard head, and Marty's assertions finally drove the message home."

"It really doesn't matter how it happened, sir," Hutch said quietly to his own clasped hands. "Only that it did."

They were both silent for a moment, Hutch not quite able to meet his father's eyes and suspecting Richard felt the same way. At length, Richard leaned over his papers, retrieved his glasses, and planted them firmly on his nose.

"I--" he began, then halted and started again. "I sincerely doubt you and I will ever be the best of friends, the 'Leave it to Beaver' family. It's simply too late for that, and I'm…we're both too stubborn."

Hutch couldn't suppress a smile.

"I can't even promise you there'll come a day when I'll feel comfortable having both you and David back in the house."

"I won't come without him," Hutch said instantly, the smile fading.

"Very well," Richard said. "That's your choice, and I can understand why you would make it. I'm simply trying, for once, to tell you what's going on in my head…" His lips twisted upward once more, in a smile Hutch knew well from the dozens of times he'd seen it on his own face. "...rather than what's going on in yours."

"I...appreciate that," Hutch said hesitantly, then more strongly, "I don't expect--. We are what we are, Dad, and I don't expect either of us is going to change overnight."

Richard snorted. "No, indeed," he agreed.

"But maybe, now, we might understand each other a little bit better."

Richard said nothing for several seconds. He opened his mouth, then closed it and pressed his lips firmly together. Briskly, he picked up one of the charts that lay scattered on the bed. "I think that's about all I want to say about this right now, Ken," he said brusquely. "Have a safe trip home. Call your mother when you get there so you don't worry her."

"I will, Dad."

Hutch rose to his feet, then paused. He considered for a moment, and before he could lose his nerve, he reached one hand out and laid it briefly on his father's, then removed it swiftly.

Gathering up the crutches, he started toward the door.

Behind him came the unmistakable sound of Richard clearing his throat.

"By the way," he said, his voice deliberately matter-of-fact. "I am, you know."

Hutch paused, one hand on the door handle. Frowning, he turned to look back at his father, whose attention was still focused on the chart in his hand.

"Proud of you," Richard added, eyes never leaving the chart.

Hutch opened his mouth, but realized he had no idea what to say to that. He simply nodded and left the room.

EPILOGUE

It was evening when they arrived back in Bay City. By the time the plane had landed and they made it out to the parking lot, Hutch was starting to look like something from "Night of the Living Dead." When they reached Hutch's car, Starsky took one look at his partner's wan, weary face and ordered him into the back seat.

"Starsk…my ankle's fine, I think I can stay upright until we get home."

"I know you can," Starsky told him, but he tempered his firmness with affection, rubbing one hand across Hutch's back. "I just don't think you should have to."

"I could make it--" Hutch began to insist, but his words were interrupted by an enormous yawn. Starsky chuckled.

"Isn't this where we came in?" He nudged Hutch. "C'mon. Stop arguin' and get in the car. That cardboard they served on the plane is way down on my list of desirable dinners."

Hutch hesitated briefly, then Starsky saw both resignation and relief drop over his eyes. He nodded once as he pulled open the sedan door. Starsky helped him climb in and pull the crutches after him, then closed the door gently, patting it once as if for luck.

"Why don't you get some sleep, babe?" he suggested, as he slipped behind the wheel.

"Yeah," Hutch mumbled, trying to make himself comfortable among the clutter in his back seat, shoving newspapers and magazines onto the floor. "Might just…for a little bit…"

His eyes closed. Smiling and shaking his head, Starsky turned the key in the ignition.

**********

Starsky eased carefully to the curb in front of the station, popped on the hazard lights, and tried to open his door as quietly as possible. He had a quick errand to run here, and he hoped Hutch would sleep through the stop. But just as one foot hit the ground, Hutch stirred in the seat behind him. As Starsky watched, his partner pushed himself to a sitting position and blinked around at their surroundings.

"Where are--?" He frowned as he recognized the station entrance and raised a quizzical eyebrow at Starsky. "What're we doing here?"

"Just gotta run in, pick something up," Starsky said breezily. "You sit tight, I'll be right back."

Hutch scrubbed his hands down his face and emitted another yawn. "I could..." yawn "...come up with you."

"Yeah, right," Starsky scoffed. "With that bum ankle, we'd still be here tomorrow morning. You stay here and guard the car. It's a piece of junk, but it's the only way we got to get home tonight."

He heard a sleepy snort as Hutch nodded. "Okay, okay," he relented. "But don't let Dobey catch you. I have no intention of sleeping in my car tonight."

Starsky grinned, wishing he could lean over and give his partner the kiss that was hovering at his lips. "No chance of that," he said. "Like I said, sit tight and I'll be right back."

It took him less than five minutes to sprint to the building and up the stairs to the squadroom. Luckily, the room was quiet and the only detectives were a man and woman he didn't know very well. He bobbed his head at them politely, then strode briskly to his desk, grabbed the envelope from his blotter, and headed back out the door.

When he got back in the car, he couldn't help grinning again.

The car's watchdog was sound asleep, blond hair glinting softly in the streetlights, full lips moving as he muttered something in a dream, then stilled once more. With difficulty, Starsky resisted another temptation to deliver a kiss; instead, he put the car into gear and silently ordered the dilapidated vehicle to get them home, and fast.

**********

An hour later, Starsky emerged from the bathroom at Venice Place, feeling infinitely better than when they'd walked in the door. Hutch had spent several minutes stumbling over his feet and sending crutches in directions that made Starsky increasingly anxious, but managed to take an awkward but clearly appreciated shower. When he'd finished, he waved Starsky into the bathroom, insisting he could lie down and elevate his own ankle. Shaking drops of water from his ear, Starsky tied the bathrobe belt around his waist and ambled across the living room to Hutch's bedroom, where his partner sat beside an open suitcase, a shoe in each hand, gazing at the wall with a thoughtful frown.

Starsky paused in the entrance. "Forget where they go?" he teased gently. "Or thinking about building a shoe tree on the wall?"

Hutch blinked, turning to Starsky as if waking up slowly from a dream or a sound and soothing sleep. He glanced down at the shoes and placed them carefully on the floor. "No," he said slowly. "Just...thinking."

"About your dad," Starsky assumed, coming over to move the suitcase and drop onto the bed beside him. Hutch nodded.

"I...you know what? I don't even know how to...how to put any of this into words," he admitted, the frown deepening. "I-I just have this feeling, this weird feeling, and I can't even name it."

"Is it good or bad?" Starsky asked, scooting behind him and beginning a gentle massage of Hutch's neck and shoulders.

Hutch half-laughed deep in his throat. "I'm not even sure about that," he confessed. "It's just...different. Like something's out of whack, out of focus."

"Well, something is," Starsky pointed out, working his fingers into a particularly stubborn knot at the base of Hutch's shoulder blade. Hutch groaned and leaned back into the pressure. "I mean, think about it, Hutch. For practically your whole life, you've had to live with your dad disapproving of you. You've gotten used to it. Now it looks like he might be comin' around--"

"Maybe," Hutch qualified, wincing as Starsky pressed harder into the knot.

"Maybe," Starsky agreed amiably, easing his fingers deeper as the knot began to dissolve under his touch. "Anyway, it's prob'ly gonna take time for you to adjust to that."

"Yeah, I know you're right." Hutch was silent for a moment, letting Starsky's hands work their magic on his tight, stiff muscles, then he picked up the envelope Starsky had tossed onto the bed. "So what was so important that you had to stop at the station on the way home?"

Starsky smiled, finally allowing himself the tender kisses he had repressed in front of the station, pressing his lips gently across Hutch's shoulder and into the sensitive areas at the base of his skull. Hutch shivered. "Open it," Starsky told him, repeating the caresses.

Chuckling huskily, Hutch opened the envelope and pulled out a series of photographs.

As he thumbed through them, Starsky could see the smile spread across his face.

"Elizabeth's pictures," Hutch murmured at last. "How--? How'd you get these? Aren't they supposed to be evidence?"

Starsky shrugged. "The originals still are," he explained. "But I called Dobey when you went on your great bagel search at the airport, and he agreed to let Minnie make a copy of 'em for us." He grinned. "I called her while you were talking to your dad, and I didn't think you'd mind me swingin' by the station to pick 'em up."

Hutch thumbed through them again, and Starsky saw the smile change to something almost sadly sweet and regretful. He dropped his hands from his partner's back and neck, and shifted to Hutch's side, placing an arm around his waist.

"So different," he heard Hutch whisper.

"From what, babe?" Starsky kissed him under his ear. Hutch shivered again, but didn't move his gaze from the photos.

"From the last set someone took of us without our knowing," Hutch replied. "Remember, the ones Graham and his juvenile delinquents took by the lake?"

Starsky raised an eyebrow. "The pictures aren't so different," he said, taking them from Hutch and spreading them like a hand of cards. "See? Just you and me, lovin' each other."

"Yeah, but this time--" Hutch paused again, then shook his head in frustration. "Dammit. I can't believe I'm this tongue-tied tonight."

"Been through a lot in a few short days, Hutch," Starsky reminded him. "Two-day stake-out and then what happened with your dad…too much work and not enough sleep would make anyone a little fuzzy."

"Yeah, maybe." Hutch took the pictures back, and as he went through them again, he continued, his voice slow and thoughtful. "But it's not just the pictures, Starsk; it's…everything." He dropped the photographs again and looked up, frowning at the wall as if it contained some puzzle he couldn't figure out. "The last time I looked at pictures like this, all I could think of was how Dad would react if he saw them…if he knew. And when he did find out--" He shook his head. "In some ways, it was worse than I'd imagined."

"I know what you mean," Starsky told him. "Somehow, bein' in the middle of it, we forget how other people see our relationship, like that hatred you were talking about with Foster shooting Elizabeth."

"At least my dad didn't shoot us," Hutch said.

"He was thinkin' of his reputation, no doubt," Starsky joked, trying to ease the tension. "He wanted to avoid those tabloid headlines."

"PROMINENT PSYCHIATRIST MURDERS GAY SON IN TOWN'S ONE AND ONLY CRIME OF PASSION." A smile finally broke through the sober look on Hutch's face. Starsky felt an answer curve his own lips.

"Followed almost immediately, no doubt, by PROMINENT PSYCHIATRIST FRICASSEED ON SAILBOAT BY WIFE AND DAUGHTER," he said. This time Hutch laughed, and Starsky's heart lightened even more at the sound, as he realized how long it had been since he'd heard Hutch laugh like that. He couldn't resist pressing yet another tender kiss on his partner's lips. It was several moments before they broke apart. Hutch pressed his forehead briefly against Starsky's and followed it with a gentle kiss of his own.

"You know, I used to think that having Dad kick me out was the worst thing that could happen, but it didn't take me quite as long to adjust to that as I thought it would." He shook his head again. "Weirdly enough, I think this is going to take me longer."

Starsky shrugged philosophically. "It's not such a mystery when you think about it," he said. "Your dad disinheriting you was something you kind of expected for a long time. But though part of you was hopin' he'd come around, another part was sure he never would."

"Yeah," Hutch nodded. "Yeah, that's exactly it. Even while I was looking for the cracks in his wall, somewhere inside I was afraid they didn't exist."

"So…" Starsky adjusted both his tone and his position on the bed; the stake-out and the days in Minnesota had left him with a craving that had been growing slowly but inexorably since he'd come down the station steps and seen his blond vision asleep in the car. He pulled at his robe, untying the belt and pulling his arms from the sleeves. Then he repeated the action with Hutch's robe, pressing his body against Hutch's back and reaching around to tug slowly, seductively, at the terrycloth knot. Hutch shivered against him as he loosened the belt and parted the robe, then lowered it gently past the broad shoulders. He dropped it only halfway, imprisoning Hutch's arms, and began to plant small, dry kisses on his partner's back.

Hutch shuddered again, and Starsky felt him stir and respond under his hands, which had come to rest in Hutch's lap.

"Good," he whispered against Hutch's back as he skimmed up toward his neck. "Glad to see everything still works."

"Oh, it still works," Hutch assured him, his voice husky. "'Course, it might work a little more quickly than either of us likes."

Starsky chuckled and felt goosepimples rise on Hutch's flesh under his lips. "That's all right," he breathed, pressing his bare chest and growing erection closer against Hutch's back and beginning to nibble at the skin just beneath his hairline. "We got all kinds of time."

"Starsk, it's late and we both need sleep," Hutch protested, but his voice was feeble and the words were distant, as rote as if they'd come from some part of Hutch's brain that wasn't fully engaged at the moment. "We have to...go to work tomorrow."

"No, we don't." Starsky nipped Hutch's earlobe and began to rub his hands up and down his partner's thighs. "Had a note on my desk from Dobey…we got two days off."

"Our weekend?"

"That's right, babe. Two whole days for a stake-out of our own."

Suddenly, Hutch's stomach interrupted with a decidedly disgruntled growl, followed quickly by a similar grumble from Starsky's insides.

"Speaking of steak--" Hutch said ruefully.

Starsky snorted. "It wasn't exactly what I had in mind," he admitted.

"So…we've got a choice to make," Hutch informed him, half-turning so he could envelop Starsky's lips in a deep, heartfelt kiss. "...about what kind of sustenance we want to pursue first."

Starsky took Hutch's head in his hands, burying his fingers in the soft, damp blond strands, and returned the kiss. When both their chests were heaving, their hearts thumping in tandem, he gently untangled his partner's arms from the robe and tossed it to the floor. Their arms around each other, they lay back together on the bed. Starsky pulled Hutch's head close again, careful not to jostle his injured ankle, and devoured his lips in small nibbles. He rolled to his side, leaving Hutch on his back, and propped himself up on one elbow. The other hand began to trickle across Hutch's chest, down to his abdomen, then lower to his groin.

Hutch groaned. His hips arched upward and he reached for Starsky, but Starsky gently removed his hand.

"You're the invalid," he told his partner, lowering his head to Hutch's and letting his breath tease Hutch's ear and neck. Hutch shuddered. "You get served first."

He moved his hand back up to Hutch's face, trailing his fingers over the closed eyes, the parted lips, and the fine stubble just rising on his chin. With one finger, he traced a line from Hutch's chin down his neck, pausing at the hollow at the base of his throat. His tongue flicked out, licked the skin there briefly, then drew back in.

Hutch hissed with pleasure.

"Appetizer," Starsky whispered. His lips continued downward, then shifted their direction to attend to Hutch's nipples. First the left, then the right, baptized with his tongue and mouthed tenderly with gentle teeth. Then his tongue trailed down the center of Hutch's stomach and paused. He raised his head.

"Soup and salad," he said softly. "Followed by your main course."

He lowered his head again.

As Starsky took him in his mouth, Hutch clutched the sheets in both hands and let his mind slip away. He was nothing but sensation, Starsky's lips encircling him, the rich, musky scent drifting from Starsky's body, the sound of their mingled moans filling the air of the bedroom. Hungry for more, he let go of the sheets and reached down, burying his fingers in Starsky's soft curls. All too soon, he felt the searing heat rising within him.

As he lay back, panting from the force of the climax, he felt Starsky's lips work their way back up, along his abdomen and chest, stopping to nip his chin, and coming to rest once again on his mouth. He reached up and buried his hands once again in Starsky's hair, letting the kiss wax and wane while his scrambled senses recollected themselves.

When their lips finally parted, Starsky gave him a quick peck and grinned. "What was that?" he asked Hutch. Hutch felt him drop onto his back beside him, their fingers lacing together.

"Just something to cleanse the palate," he teased, his voice husky. He rolled onto his side and trailed his fingers down Starsky's chest. "So…are you ready for dessert?"

"Mmmm," Starsky murmured agreeably. "How about some apple pie a la mode?"

Hutch tugged on a strand of chest hair. Starsky winced, and they both laughed softly.

"How about some fellatio a la Hutch instead?" Hutch suggested, letting his lips follow his fingers as they moved from Starsky's chest to his groin.

It was Starsky's turn to groan as Hutch's lips closed over him. Hutch felt his partner's hands running through his hair, stroking him tenderly, as he let his mouth work the same magic Starsky had performed on him. He increased his pace, then slowed, again and again, until the fingers tightened in his hair, and Starsky bucked beneath him, and they both sighed with pleasure.

Later, as they lay on their backs under the sheet, arms pressed together, fingers entwined, Hutch blinked up at the ceiling and yawned. Starsky squeezed his hand.

"'Night, Blintz," he murmured. "Sleep well…you're gonna need it."

"Is that so?" Hutch chuckled. "How come?"

Starsky gave a rich, throaty laugh. "Wait'll you see what I'm plannin' for breakfast."

Hutch chuckled again and loosened his fingers so he could nudge his arm under Starsky's shoulders and pull him close. As Starsky's head rested on his shoulder, he felt his eyes drooping. He breathed in again, savoring the scent of his partner and their lovemaking, and ran a hand down the warm texture of Starsky's arm. He let his eyes close, and as he was consumed by another enormous yawn, he again heard his father's words in his mind:

Proud of you, son. Damned proud of you.
And on its heels, Starsky's husky voice.
Love you, babe. Like nobody ever before.

The two refrains parted and alternated in his head, then merged into one, a melody he'd never heard before and thought he never would.

He smiled and, drawing Starsky closer, drifted off to sleep.

**********

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Coming September 23, 2003 on Starsky & Hutch:
"Special Treat Week"

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