The Mirror Crack'd
by Hutchrules3

SHSVS, Episode 703, Part 1

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?"

703-1.jpg 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.

703-2.jpg "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."

On to Part 2