THE TRIP

by: Debbie L

Trip [noun]
1. a stumble or fall
2. an experience caused by taking mind-altering drugs
3. a journey

Ordinarily, Hutch would be the one holding the map. Instead, Starsky had the damn thing propped up against the armrest of the passenger seat, but it getting blown off the seat by the air conditioning. After the first few times, he was tempted to chuck it out the window. After all, it wasn't like he was in danger of getting lost. Miles and miles of nothing lay between them and everywhere else. It was so easy to leave everything behind. Head east, across 66, through San Bernardino, and turn off at the sign marked "Other Desert Cities." Heading nowhere. No map required. But the cup-half-full side of Starsky was holding onto some hope for that map. He wanted very badly to believe that Hutch would want it for the drive home.

Hutch was the one who usually cared about where they were going. He'd always loved maps. For a while, he belonged to National Geographic's "Map of the Month Club" until he let his subscription expire last year. Told Starsky there was no point in renewing it -- he never really left LA anyways... Hutch enjoyed a trip as long as he had a clear destination in mind. Starsky, on the other hand, preferred the view along the way. Didn't always need to know where he was going. It was enough to be heading in the right direction, with the windows down, the radio cranked up obnoxiously loud, and his best friend in the passenger seat, griping about the volume and choice of song. It was about their partnership. Starsky drove. Hutch sat beside him telling him where to go, even if it was to hell sometimes.

Not this time, partner.

Starsky checked the rear view mirror, and from the back seat, Hutch met his eyes with a steady glare. He looked terrible, but at least, the shakes hadn't started yet. Starsky was pretty sure they were almost ready for the next dose, but he'd been trying to stretch out the intervals as long as he could.

"Hey partner," Starsky said cheerfully, like he'd just had his coffee. "Did you get some sleep? Feeling any better?"

Hutch didn't even blink, impressive given the circumstances. Instead, he asked calmly, "Are you planning to unlock these any time soon?"

From his vantage point, Starsky couldn't see the handcuffs that bound his partner's wrists, but he knew they were there.

Starsky had spent plenty of time overseeing the attachment of a small metal bar to the back of the passenger seat in the Torino. Merle had cussed him out in perfect street poetry after Starsky'd changed his mind on the positioning for the third time. But Starsky needed it to be just right. It was the first step in Starsky's plan and the most drastic in many ways, but it set their course as surely as any map.

Merle had suggested fastening the cuffs to the bottom of the seat rather than mess up the leather, but Starsky didn't want to do that to Hutch's back. That was all they needed -- a real reason for all those pills Starsky had stashed in the trunk. Besides, Starsky couldn't stand the idea of his partner being uncomfortable. He'd actually sat in that back seat himself with his hands cuffed in front, trying to find the best position for the bar. Too high and it would hurt Hutch's shoulders. Too low -- Hutch's lower back. He'd thought ahead. Had packed every pillow he owned and bought a couple more for good measure, so Hutch would have plenty of support for his elbows and arms. He'd even lined the cuffs with gauze so that...

"Answer me, dammit. I deserve that much." Hutch said from the back.

"Can't do it, Hutch," he said. No games. No jokes. Hutch deserved his answer straight up. "Told you. Not yet. You're not ready."

Terrific. Starsky looked back and saw that the shakes were back, after all. Hutch was sweating away all the water Starsky'd been giving him, but he still looked cold. It had been at least five hours since his last dose. At the beginning of the trip, Hutch had admitted taking something every couple hours. Usually, he didn't go two hours at a stretch. That was the first thing Starsky swore to change. Hutch was never, ever, ever going to take those damn things every two hours again...

"We're in the middle of nowhere, Starsk." Aw, there it was. The soft voice. The pet name. Hutch was changing his game, trying a different tactic.

"Not yet. We're still somewhere. When we're nowhere, I'll tell you."

"Go to hell, Starsky," Hutch said, but he sounded more exhausted than anything else.

"Do you need me to pull over?" Starsky asked. "Are you ready for another dose?"

"Yeah."

Hutch swallowed, and tears welled up. Starsky had to warn himself to keep his own eyes on the road. Somehow, he'd been able to do what he needed to, by convincing himself that this wasn't really his partner in the back seat. The familiar vulnerability only made it that much worse.

Starsky pulled over, making sure he was well off the road. He unfolded his body out of the driver's seat, feeling the ache in his own legs and arms. He couldn't imagine how miserable Hutch must be back there. Cramping had been one of the worst side effects the last time they'd gone through this, along with the shakes. But he shrugged off that memory, not wanting to think about what was to come. It was going to be different this time. Starsky'd spent the past couple weeks learning about what he was up against and planning this out. The first time around, Hutch had been the victim and he'd been the savior. This time, their roles in relation to each other weren't so easily defined.

He took just a minute to get his bearings and look around. Godforsaken was the word that came to mind, and that was kind of generous. It had been a good long while since they'd passed another car, and everywhere around them, the brown earth was dotted with scrub and yucca. Dust was drifting around the car, kicked up by the warm wind, and Starsky realized that the Torino had finally gone undercover, beneath its shroud of dirt and insect remains. No detail work at Ray's Auto Wash was ever going to fix this. A single day of driving across the desert was pitting the perfect paint job, probably irrevocably. Starsky shrugged and let it go. There was nothing perfect left in anything he loved.

He went around to the trunk and hefted out a jug of water. Of course, he'd planned ahead and packed more than the two of them would ever need, but that didn't stop him from eying their hoard uneasily. Next time he stopped for gas he'd fill up all the jugs. According to Huggy, there should be a gas station another forty or so miles up the road. Huggy never really left Bay City, but Starsky was sure he was right. Huggy had connections that defied every law of reason, probability, and common sense.

Together, they'd planned out the trip, with multiple maps spread across a back table at the Pits. They'd chosen mostly back roads, skirting civilization. No city streets, no police, no doctors. No hospitals. No matter what happened to the two of them, Starsky would be damned if he ever let his partner anywhere near another hospital ever again. Huggy told him he was being unreasonable and that most likely, Hutch would have to go to a hospital at some point in his life, but Starsky was still too raw to think far down the road.

Taking a deep breath, Starsky reached for the army-green duffle he'd shoved in the corner of the trunk. God, he hated this. Crammed in with the other provisions, it almost looked like an afterthought. It was, however, the main event.

Starsky pulled out the right bottle by feel... he was getting good at this. Codeine was the squat bottle, the one with the pull off top. Morphine was the thin amber bottle, the one with the lid that took some muscle to open. Then, there were a couple experimental opiates, ones that even Huggy hadn't recognized by name, which must have been prescribed by one of Hutch's more creative doctors. Huggy's connection had suggested that Starsky keep alternating medications, given Hutch had been doing the same on his own.

Before the kidnapping, Starsky had taken the time to consolidate pills, trying to make sense of the various opiates, organizing prescriptions. He'd tossed the empty bottles into an opaque garbage bag and had handed it over to Huggy to be taken to the dump. No sense having anyone loot through the garbage can outside Hutch's apartment and come to any unfortunate conclusions. When Starsky was done organizing, he'd ended up with just over a dozen assorted bottles of every kind of opiate a law-abiding citizen could purchase from any friendly neighborhood pharmacy. Never mind the fact that the name of doctor and pharmacy was different on every bottle. Hutch had been keeping himself busy.

Starsky shook out a couple pills from the bottle of codeine. Frowning, he pulled out the steno pad he'd stashed in the duffel and consulted his own notes. Dutifully, he logged the date, time, and the dosage, double-checking his notes and the doctor's instructions, before he zipped it up. As it turned out, Hutch had gone six hours between pills, which was an hour longer than he'd gone before. Progress, he noted grimly, was now measured in hours, miles, and milligrams.

Balancing the cup of water and the pills, Starsky ambled to the passenger door, careful not to lean in too close. He'd already learned that while Hutch couldn't slug him handcuffed, he could most definitely kick and wasn't terribly concerned about controlling his aim. It had been a while since their last pit stop. He'd have to let his partner out soon to take a leak, but he wanted him a little more doped up for that. Starsky swung open the passenger side door. He leaned over the seat with the cup of water and the pills.

"Open up," he said.

God, the look Hutch aimed his way before opening his mouth... Starsky didn't think he'd ever get over that little preview of hell. Watching his fingers, he placed the two white tablets on the back of Hutch's tongue and brought up the cup to his partner's lips. Hutch tilted his head and took a mouthful, holding it, as if thinking it over first. But then he swallowed.

Starsky felt like the oldest man in the world. Could feel the blood drying up in his veins, could hold onto every breath like it might be his last.

"Next time, you're only taking one, Hutch."

Hutch looked up, his eyes bloodshot and terrible on his broken face.

"I hate you," he said.

Starsky shuddered, absorbing the words, as if his partner had injected them in a vein. But he nodded and backed off slowly.

"Be back in a minute."

Starsky shut the door gently and began walking away. When he got far enough, Starsky braced himself on his knees and heaved and retched until he was empty again. The voices in his head were persistent and damning.

You can't control this.

You can't fix this.

You can't save him.

He's lost, already lost.

He rubbed his fingers over his eyes, wiping away tears that he couldn't afford. Then Starsky got himself together and found his way back to his partner.


Hutch allowed himself to be guided back to the Torino, his partner's hand firm on the small of his back. The "guidance" felt more like a suggestion than force, but Hutch knew that if he really tried any kind of resisting, he'd wind up flat on his belly, his face pressed against the desert sand, and Starsky's knee jammed into the center of his back. There was a good reason Starsky had the best track record of any detective sergeant at Metro. He didn't let anyone get the drop on him. Hutch wasn't so wasted he couldn't appreciate the fact that he'd been kidnapped by the best damn detective in Bay City.

Starsky looked worried when Hutch giggled a little at the thought, as he leaned over the seat to lock up his prisoner. Hutch obediently held out his hands, only wincing when the cuffs snapped tightly around the bruised flesh. When Starsky'd first nabbed him, he'd done more than his share of resisting. But that had been hours and hours ago. Now, the fight was drained out of him. Maybe, he should just let Starsky take him wherever the hell he wanted to go. There could be worse things than getting lost in the middle of nowhere with Starsky.

The drugs were really starting to kick in. Hutch let himself slide into them and he slumped against the window, amazingly comfortable. Nothing was bothering him now, even though he'd always hated the back seat. No place to stash his long legs. Couldn't really figure out why Starsky hadn't handcuffed him in the front instead. Probably figured he'd try to take Starsky out with some Far East super-hero kick he'd picked up during his free time at Vinnie's gym. Again, Hutch laughed out loud at the thought, noting the frown deepening on his partner's face.

Starsky leaned over and tightened the seat belt around Hutch's waist. Everything always seemed funny in the initial wave of the narcotic. Just the idea of Starsky finding it necessary to dig out the unused seatbelt for his benefit when he was already attached to the damn car was enough to launch him into another fit of giggles.

Starsky frowned. "I gave you too much, didn't I?"

Hutch's grin died out, and something darker took its place. "Nah, you're doing fine," he said. "Best damn pusher I ever had."

Why don't you just leave me on the side of the road, Starsk?

Starsky's face went tight. It was the look he reserved for the worst of the worst. Hutch recognized it right away.

He growled, "You're getting off this shit. We'll risk it. If you have a seizure, I'll tie you down. I want that stuff out of you, Hutch, and I want it out now!"

Hutch only flinched a little when Starsky slammed the door hard. He was storming off somewhere, but he wouldn't be gone for long. It wasn't too hot -- April in the desert was still relatively pleasant, but there was no way Starsky would leave him alone in the car alone for any stretch of time.

He wasn't giggling any more. The high was already fading away, like the pink haze that hung over the desert at midday. Now, the payoff was settling in -- the pleasant fuzziness -- the real reason for his cache of pills. He seriously doubted his partner had found all of them. The cop was good; the addict was always better. Warmth was spreading over him, but in a good way. He started to feel benevolent towards his partner. Couldn't remember why he'd been so angry and said those things. Poor Starsky. Trying so hard to make everything okay. It was ironic. All this happened in the first place, because it had been Hutch's turn to make everything okay for Starsky.

And then, as it happened so often, Hutch found himself thinking of Simon Marcus again. All his thoughts seemed to come back to Marcus... he hadn't figured out how to get the evil out of his head. Taking the drugs had made those memories at least bearable. Kept him more or less sane, so he could keep going with the business at hand -- taking care of his partner. But the drugs had stopped cutting it. Kept having to take more and more just to maintain. Damn Marcus to hell for what he'd done to them. Hutch would have done anything to have kept that terrible day in January from ever happening. To have kept Starsky safe from Marcus' followers and kept their lives from going down that darker path...

Hutch let his thoughts drift back to that day, and this time, he followed after them. If only he could go back to the courthouse at Marcus's sentencing. If he could, Hutch would barricade the doors of the courthouse this time, more to keep Starsky in than to keep anyone else out. They'd have been all right if they'd stayed together. But the universe was in cohorts against them, along with Starsky's notoriously small bladder and stupid superstition, which would send him onwards to the bathroom where Marcus's followers were waiting with their bucket of blood. If only he could stop him. This time around, Hutch would bolt the door and block the way. Protect Starsky at all costs from all monsters.

Oh, for a second chance... to be able to say -- Stop! Don't do this. Don't go! You're going to suffer in ways we never dreamed of. Oh damn it, Starsky, I'm going to save you, but we're not going to be okay, not really, not like we were before...

But, it always turned out the same. Starsky was gone. Gone, and Hutch was the only one who could rescue him. The White Knight could do nothing less than try to save his own partner... Simon said so...

But Hutch did save Starsky. Rescued him just in time and got a commendation for it. Would have been convenient, albeit highly unlikely, if everything else had worked out as neatly. Since when had life doled out that kind of justice?

It took a while before Hutch realized how much damage Marcus' followers had actually done to his partner. Flakes and goons. That was how Dobey always referred to them, and Hutch marveled at his captain's ability to castrate the world's demons by giving them undignified names. He'd often wished he was able to do the same. But Hutch couldn't think of them that way. He thought of them as evil incarnate, and with that single-minded sense of purpose, Hutch intended to deliver his partner from evil.

Starsky was released from the hospital into his partner's care, after an overnight stay. There was hardly an inch of his body that wasn't battered, bruised and damaged, but the doctors said he was very, very lucky. Hutch knew that was both the truth and the stupidest thing he'd ever heard. Starsky would heal okay -- he always did. What hit Hutch the hardest was the damage done to his partner's soul. Starsky would say he was being melodramatic, but Hutch couldn't stop thinking of it that way. Starsky had always been able to stare down evil and be the last to blink. He had more guts than anyone. But, that was before Marcus.

Their lives seemed irrevocably split into two eras: "Before Marcus" and "After Marcus." That man had messed with their dreams and had changed Starsky. Had changed both of them. And Hutch hated that. More than anything he'd ever wanted in his life, Hutch wanted to make things right for his partner. That, of course, was impossible, but there were so many practical things that Starsky needed help with, and Hutch was good for that. His partner was a walking bruise during that first week. Said he'd managed to screw up bodily functions he didn't even know he had.

But Hutch was there.

He cleaned Starsky's apartment, shopped for groceries, picked up prescriptions, made breakfast and dinner and left behind sandwiches and cut up fruit for lunch. He did laundry every day, and after the first couple loads, figured out how to wash Starsky's jeans so they didn't shrink even more. He washed the Torino and even waxed it once, returned library books and checked out new ones, and made sure Starsky's rent was paid by the tenth of the month. He kept track of appointments, took notes during every doctor's visit, and bullied Starsky into seeing the department shrink. He even agreed to see the shrink himself, once or twice, if it meant that Starsky would stop griping about therapy being a crapshoot.

(The psychiatrist said that Hutch was doing a good job "being there" for his partner and was helping significantly with Starsky's recovery. Despite his own reservations about the field of psychiatry, the compliment made Hutch smile all day.)

Then there was work, and that's where it got tricky. At the precinct, Hutch covered for his partner. After all, Starsky had done it for him, never so much as when Hutch was going through withdrawal, after Forest had gotten through with him. Hutch could do no less for his partner. The official story was that Starsky was bouncing back beautifully from his ordeal, just like he always did. The real truth was reserved for Hutch and Hutch alone. Only around Hutch, did Starsky let go of the charade that he was fine and dandy after being kidnapped and tortured for over twenty-four hours by Simon Marcus' worshippers. The truth was something they didn't have to talk about. They'd always taken turns taking care of each other. It was Hutch's turn. The real truth was every bit as simple and complicated as that.

Starsky needed to eat. He'd lost weight during his ordeal, and he'd always needed a lot of food. Fast metabolism. Even though he complained about it loudly, Hutch took Starsky to all his favorite haunts, even though he wasn't about to eat at those places himself. It wasn't like a chili cheddar dog from Cupid's hot dog stand was going to do much for his own uneasy stomach. Didn't matter. He was satisfied to see Starsky eating happily, and Hutch was used to skipping meals. Besides, everyone knew that fasting helped deal with stress.

At night, Hutch tossed and turned, trying to ignore the warning signals coming from his lower back. He'd taken to spending every night at Starsky's, because his partner didn't sleep well alone any more... needed all the lights on and the doors locked... Sometimes, Starsky wanted to talk for hours in the middle of the night or just play Monopoly; it was like his sleep rhythms were all messed up after the hours and hours in that pit.

Hutch thought maybe Starsky would want to talk about what happened. It wasn't really their way -- rehashing what was already over and done, but who knows -- maybe it would help.

So once, in the middle of the night, Hutch asked, "Would it help to talk... about what they did... what they did to you?"

Starsky looked up, his eyes more bloodshot and wearier than Hutch had ever seen.

"It was bad, Hutch." And that was all he said.

So Hutch pulled out the Monopoly game and played until Starsky couldn't stay awake any more. That didn't mean Hutch went back to sleep. He'd never been a great sleeper -- always prone to insomnia. Had never been able to sleep with the lights on or get back to sleep once he'd been woken up, but how much sleep did a healthy person really need, anyway? The way Hutch saw it, mothers with newborns got by with less. Starsky needed him almost as much as a newborn. Like any good mother, Hutch knew he had no choice. He'd make it work.

Nineteen days after the kidnapping, Starsky went back to full duty. Everyone commented on how good he looked and how quickly he got back into the swing of things. Dobey even complimented him for his restraint during the three busts they'd made during that first day back.

But Hutch had been at his partner's side during those busts, and he saw something else besides restraint. He recognized fear, and it was the kind that could get Starsky killed. Healthy respect for danger was one thing, but real fear was something else, something neither of them could afford. Every day, a cop had to make gut-level decisions that could determine whether he lived through the day. No time for second-guessing or hesitation. The kind of trauma that Starsky'd survived was often a showstopper in law enforcement. The lead detectives who had conducted the initial investigation of the Marcus Massacre were still out on leave, and there were plenty of rumors that they'd be going on permanent disability. Never be cops again. But Starsky had something going for him those other cops didn't have. He had Hutch.

And Starsky was getting better. They were starting to get back in sync with each other, and Hutch was even remembering to eat every now and then. It might have all worked out just fine, if an altercation with a small-time meth dealer hadn't shot the whole thing to hell. There wasn't anything in particular about the bust that should have made it go so badly. Starsky was in good form that day and was reading Hutch like nothing was wrong. Wasn't even afraid. It was a typical drug bust. They'd had their perp cornered. On a count of three, they'd rushed the squat hovel of a house, taking the dealer by surprise. Starsky provided cover, while Hutch slammed the dealer up against the wall. So far, so good.

Hutch was leaning in to frisk the suspect, when the man turned sharply and pulled a sucker punch that Hutch hadn't seen coming. He keeled over, allowing the perp to land a double-fisted blow to his shoulder that took him to his knees. Starsky was shouting something that Hutch couldn't make any sense out of. The pain was way out of proportion to the injury, but he felt like he couldn't breathe. His shoulder was on fire, roaring with agony like the nerves had been stripped bare from his neck all the way to his lower back. Almost at once, his hand went numb, and he couldn't hold on to his gun anymore. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Starsky knock the perp to the ground, cuffing him before the man could even voice a word of protest.

"Hutch! Hutch?"

"Fine," Hutch gasped, trying to breathe through it. "I'm fine."

But he wasn't fine. He told Starsky he was just a little sore, had pulled a muscle, but the truth was he could hardly walk. He went back to Starsky's house and spent an hour in the bathroom, because he couldn't figure out how to get his body into the bathtub in order to soak.

"Fine," he kept calling through the bathroom door. "I'm fine."

He spent that night sitting upright at a straight-backed kitchen chair, because he couldn't handle lying down. He took two Tylenol and it didn't do a thing, so he added a third. He took a couple aspirin an hour later. He was almost ready to wake up Starsky and to ask him to drive him to the ER, when his partner woke up that night with one of the worst nightmares ever. Not all demons were the kind you could frisk and slam against a wall. Starsky's daytime bluster was a thing of beauty, but the damage still showed up at night. Hutch got Starsky through the worst of the wild-eyed shaking, but the simple act of sitting on the side of the bed was torture to his neck and back. He could hardly make it back to the chair after Starsky'd fallen asleep again.

For once in his life, Hutch had absolutely no idea what to do. There was no way he'd be able to fake it through a work day, but there was no way he could let anyone know. Starsky had enough on his plate without worrying about Hutch. He couldn't even tell Dobey. Hell, Dobey would pull him from the roster, and with Hutch's luck, he'd end up on bed rest, followed up by an interminable course of physical therapy. There was no way whatsoever he was going to take a chance of Starsky being partnered with someone else. Who but Hutch cared enough to watch Starsky's back the way he did? No thank you. No Sir.

At one point, he did consider asking Huggy for advice. For whatever reason, Huggy seemed to have a solution for every problem, and if he didn't have an answer, he knew someone who did. But Hutch couldn't take the chance of Huggy running to his partner, telling tales. The man was their friend, but he was Starsky's snitch.

The morning dragged on, and it soon became obvious that he wouldn't be able con his partner for much longer. After an hour of sitting at his typewriter unable to lift his arms high enough to type his report, with Starsky scowling suspiciously from across the table, Hutch decided to do the one thing that no one would have seen coming. He told Starsky he had to keep an appointment for lunch, and he staggered a block to the nearest pay phone and called a cab. When the driver dropped him off at Memorial, he stumbled into the emergency room under his own free will.

Two hours later, he stiffly made his way down the hospital's main corridor with a filled prescription for two week's worth of codeine. For once, he'd been perfectly honest in describing his symptoms, and the doctor hadn't hesitated in handing over the prescription after checking him out. Of course, Hutch had carefully omitted admitting any past experience with other little drugs like heroin, but the doctor didn't ask, so Hutch figured it was all fair game. Ever since Forest, he hadn't touched anything stronger than a beer and a couple aspirin. Even if he'd been occasionally tempted, Starsky had always been on hand to enforce the rule they never talked about. Opiates were off limits. They'd been to hell and back during the 48 hours of withdrawal after Hutch escaped from Forest, and they were never, ever going to go through that again. But Starsky had other things to worry about. And Hutch needed to take care of Starsky.

It was his turn.

He stopped at a water fountain and popped the top off the bottle. He shook out two perfect white pills. They looked so benign, compared to the needles of his nightmares. There was no way the doctor would have written the prescription if it was dangerous. Doctors knew what they were doing. Do no harm and all that...

And yet, for one moment -- one painfully honest moment -- Hutch stopped and thought about what he was doing. He balanced his options against the two little pills in his hand. Once, Hutch had believed that his forced addiction to heroin at the hands of Ben Forest was the worst thing that had ever happened to him. He'd been wrong. Losing control of his own body was bad. Losing Starsky was unthinkable. Even as Hutch stared at those innocuous pills, the pain in his back seized up again, as if to remind him what was at stake. He "had" to be there for Starsky.

Besides...

Codeine was not heroin. It was prescribed every day by practically every doctor in the country. Hell, in other countries, you could buy it over the counter. He was no junkie. Starsky'd assured him of that. He'd been a victim, forcibly addicted, which gave him nothing in common with an ordinary hype. He was a cop, for God's sake! By taking care of his own pain, he'd be able to take care of his partner. Not only was this the responsible thing to do, it was the only thing to do.

A small voice inside said that he should at least tell Starsky. But he shrugged that off. Starsky would take on too much, too soon, if he knew. He'd jeopardize his own recovery trying to look after Hutch. And there was no way on earth that Hutch was going to allow that.

And then there was something else... something less noble, less self-sacrificing. It was the darker voice inside that asked, "Why me? Why 'not' me? Why can't I be like everyone else just this once? Why can't I do this because I want to?"

It wasn't something the white knight would say. It wasn't even something a decent cop would say. But the pills in his hand awakened a need inside him, long since buried. Something deep and dark and insatiable, a perilous line that should never be crossed. The temptation of letting it all go... letting everything go.

Heroin had been the sweetest comfort he'd ever known. Like being wrapped in the blanket of angels. It had also been a glimpse of hell and one that only his partner had been able to pull him out of.

Pull yourself together, Hutchinson. He had to dig his fingers in his palm to come back to the pills in his hand. Not enough sleep, too many worries, too much pain... no wonder he was on edge. Once he got some relief, everything would be all right again. He wasn't an addict; he was a cop. Shaking his head at his own dark musings, he popped the pills in his mouth. Bending carefully, he took a long drink of water from the fountain and swallowed.

They went down easier than he thought.

In the back seat of the Torino, Hutch shifted his weight, the pain in his back and wrists feeling better already. Even though their effectiveness had faded over the months he'd been using, the drugs could still work their unholy magic. Here he was -- sitting in the back of the Torino, cuffed to the seat, kidnapped and driven into the middle of the desert by the best friend he had in the whole world.

He must have drifted off while he'd been thinking about Marcus, because they were on the road again. The sun was setting. In the low, evening light, he could see for miles and miles across the desert floor. It was a thing of bleak beauty, the vista open to the sky. Oddly unreal, the sight awakened an aching inside of him that the medication couldn't touch.

Hutch didn't know how long they'd been driving while he'd been out. Starsky wasn't saying much, although he kept checking in the back mirror every couple minutes. Hutch couldn't even imagine what his partner was thinking, but there was one thing he knew for sure. Things would never be the same between them again. Starsky would never, ever be able to trust him again. A partner's trust was sacrosanct and yet somewhat ephemeral. Once it was gone, it was gone.

Hutch had no doubt that he'd already lost everything. He wished Starsky had given him more than a couple pills. A few more, and he wouldn't be worrying over it, one way or another. That's what the pills were good for. Heroin was a siren call to madness -- a sullied paradise at the end of a needle. The pills weren't all that, but they softened the fact that he might never be happy again. The drugs took the place of happiness and consoled him that the loss of it didn't matter, on way or the other.

However, the drugs couldn't do much to dull the shock that Starsky had actually kidnapped him. Not only that, but the kidnapping obviously hadn't been a spur of the moment decision. Hutch's hands were cuffed to a bar that he knew damn well hadn't been there before, and his elbow was resting on a pillow that still had the price tag on it. $5.99 Whatever Starsky was up to, he'd been planning it long enough to go out and buy pillows.

"Kidnapping's a federal offense, Starsky," he said, even surprising himself by saying it out loud, breaking the long silence between them. "You're breaking the law."

But Starsky shot right back, "So's piling up prescription pills like you're hoarding for the apocalypse. So's going to a dozen doctors and a dozen pharmacies to keep yourself supplied with enough pills to--"

"All right, I get it." Hutch rested both hands on his leg and could feel the muscles twitching underneath. "You know everything. I'm messed up."

"Terrific. You're finally agreeing with me."

"You have no right to do this. This is my life." Hutch hated the drugged slur to his voice. In fact, he hated his voice. Hated his whole damned life. Hated everything.

"You're forgettin' I have power of attorney over you."

"Yeah, if I'm unconscious. Or dying. Or when I'm incompetent to make my own decisions, not when you don't approve of them."

Hutch could tell Starsky was angry by the clenched fists on the steering wheel, even though he was trying hard to control it. "I'd say you've been pretty damn incompetent for a good long time now, Blintz."

"Go to hell Starsky," Hutch bit out. His eyes were starting to close. The drugs were having their way. He could sleep and pretend his life had been a nightmare after all.

"Only with you," Starsky said, his voice surprisingly gentle. "Ain't going nowhere without you. And that's a promise, partner."

Even though Starsky couldn't see it from the front of the car, Hutch managed a response to that, despite the cuffs.

A single upturned middle finger.

So Starsky thought he was going to save him? Not everyone was worth saving, buddy. There was no way on hell or earth that Hutch was going to let Starsky sacrifice his life and career trying to save what was left of Hutch's. For a couple minutes, Hutch tried to think about how he could explain it, but the drugs were clouding what was left of his rational thought. Finally, he gave up trying to make sense of anything.

Hutch closed his eyes into the beautiful place between awake and asleep that only the pills could give.


Morphine was blue. It came in 100-milligram tablets that were smaller than the codeine but every bit as effective.

Hutch had lolled a bitter grin at Starsky after he'd swallowed the two pills and drawled, "Hey, how'd you know... pal...? Blue's my favorite..."

Starsky had been bound and determined to reduce his partner's dosage that night, but once he realized that he was too tired for any night driving, it became clear that he'd have to find a way for them to get some sleep. It was true they could have slept in the car, but Starsky recognized all too clearly what he'd somehow missed before. Hutch's back was definitely hurting. From the look of things, it had been hurting for a while. In the back seat, his shoulders were hunched, and he was favoring his left side, a sure sign that the right side was bothering him.

"Was it your back?" Starsky asked abruptly.

Hutch lifted his head to look at him, fuzzily. Starsky could tell that his partner was looser already. Damn, but those pills worked fast.

"Huh?"

"Was it your back that did it? Is that why you started using?"

"You're good," Hutch slurred. "Shoulda been a detective..."

Starsky clenched his fists. "Just answer me, Hutch. I need to know how this happened."

"Thought you were the one with all the answers..."

"Does your back hurt now?"

"Too late for talking, Starsk. You have me cuffed, remember?"

Starsky looked away. Didn't want to have this conversation. They both needed sleep and needed it bad. He'd packed sleeping bags but had no idea where he should lay them out. The last time they'd stopped, he'd seen a scorpion or a tarantula, or some other kind of creeping, crawling thing that Hutch wasn't willing to help him identify. Sleeping under the stars was more Hutch's thing, but Starsky doubted his partner was going to be giving him any pointers.

Starsky muttered, "Yeah, I do remember." He had to get himself together. This wasn't going to be easy. "Time for bed, Hutch. Gotta get out of the car."

"Gotta take a leak."

"I know, me too... I'm trying to figure it how to handle it."

Hutch's voice was suddenly quieter. Not so belligerent. "You can take these off, you know. Not like I'm taking off anywhere out here."

Starsky turned around and regarded his "partner turned prisoner" with complete sincerity. "There's nothing I want more than that, Hutch, you gotta believe me. But you gotta trust me. You always did before."

"We always wanted the same things before," Hutch mumbled, even as his head rolled back against the seat. "Seems to me that I'm asking you to trust me, not the other way around."

"I do trust you," Starsky said. "Always have, always will. But you're not you, right now, buddy. Believe me, Hutch, you still want everything I do. You just don't remember."

"Shut up, and let me sleep."

With a sigh, Starsky peered out his own window. Outside, the world looked like black glass. Starsky had never seen dark like that before. Nervously opening the door, he stepped out onto the side of the road. After the long hot day, he wasn't ready for the shock of the cold of night in the desert. He didn't even want to think about all the creepy, crawly things that would be coming out to play. He preferred taking on the lowlifes in any old back alley.

He went around to the trunk and pulled out their sleeping bags and a couple sweatshirts. Couldn't see much, but it had been a long time since it mattered whose was whose. Coming around the other side, he opened the passenger door, the interior light flicked on, and Starsky tossed the sweatshirt over the seat onto Hutch's lap.

"S'cold. Put it on."

Hutch raised his cuffed wrists as far as he could. "Kinda hard with these."

"All right, all right." Starsky bit his lip for a minute, but then reached in his back pocket for the key. "Hutch... you just gotta promise me."

"Promise you what?"

"That you won't run. I don't wanna hurt you."

Hutch closed his eyes. He smiled.

"Where would I go?" he asked. "Middle of nowhere, Starsk." He looked up and studied his partner in the moonlight. "That's why... why you brought me out here, isn't it?"

"You shoulda been a detective." Starsky unlocked the cuff and stood back, giving his friend time to rub his poor wrists. Unsteadily, Hutch climbed out from the back seat and shook out his arms, stretching them over his head. From experience, Starsky knew they'd be numb and tingling, and he grimaced sympathetically. Hutch tossed the sweatshirt on the roof of the car.

"I'm not cold," he said and gestured out into the abyss. "After you."

They wandered out onto the desert plain together. It was as barren as a moonscape itself underneath the real moon, which was as round and gorgeous a thing as Starsky had ever seen. It was probably the most exotic location he'd ever found for taking a piss, but it served its purpose, and he kept a cop's eye on his partner, not ten feet away, doing the same. For the walk back, Starsky kept one hand on his gun and another on his partner's back. He could still feel the tremors underneath his hand, and Starsky assumed it wasn't all from the cold. Even so, Hutch was surprisingly steady on his feet, considering that he'd had enough morphine to put most men out already. Starsky had no idea what he'd do if Hutch decided to run. What good was his gun? They both knew he would never use it.

Once back at the Torino, Hutch stopped short, raising his hands in mock surrender.

"What now? I take it you're not going to shoot me and leave me on the side of the road."

Starsky's mouth fell open, both for the words themselves and for the fact that Hutch could still read his mind, even when they were at such cross-purposes. His partner almost sounded like himself for a minute -- the sarcasm almost sounded... typical.

Hutch kept going when Starsky didn't answer. "Dammit, Starsky, what are you even thinking? You kidnapped me! I can't say how many broken laws you stuffed in that duffle bag in the trunk, but since you seem determined to go down with me on this, you need to tell me what's happening next. Is it time for my next dose or not?"

"You just had one."

"I could use another." Hutch pointed a defiant finger at Starsky's chest even as he slumped against the Torino. "You know you could give me another."

"Are you warm enough?" Starsky opened the trunk and started looting through it, hard to do in the dark. When he'd had Merle check over the car before they left, he hadn't told him to replace the light in the trunk. He'd tried so hard to cover all his bases...

"Stop changing the subject. What the hell are you doing now?"

"You need your jacket. It's too cold out here. Put it on after you put on your sweatshirt."

"Then what?"

"Just do it, Hutch."

"And if I don't?"

"Then I won't give you any more pills." Starsky couldn't believe anything in his life would ever be worse than this. "Dammit, Hutch, I'll cut you off tonight, if you don't do what I say. You've had your chance to make your own decisions, and it hasn't gone real well has it? This time, I'm in control."

Hutch's glare was the hardest thing Starsky had ever seen. Almost didn't recognize him.

"You've changed, Starsk. Funny what having the wrong partner will do to you."

Starsky sighed and reached for the handcuffs that he'd left in the Torino. "Shut up, Hutch, and give me your hand. Let's get this over with."

"What if I don't? You're not gonna keep me supplied much longer anyways. Already told me so. Not a good move, Detective... showing your hand too early in the game... Tell me again. What are you going to do if I don't go along?"

For a minute, Starsky couldn't remember what he was going to do. He'd forgotten that part of the plan. All he wanted was to grab his sleeping bag and call it a night. Let Hutch do what he wanted to. But he knew full well that wasn't going to happen. Hutch was testing him, and Starsky had no choice but to lay it out.

"I could have you committed."

"You're bluffing. You don't have that authority, and you know it!"

Starsky squared his shoulders. He was definitely playing the bad cop on this one. "Power of attorney, remember? I have a copy in the glove compartment, and the original's on file. Talked to a doctor who thinks I wouldn't have any trouble getting it signed off. There are plenty of rehab programs that will take--"

"That'll take a junkie cop?"

"You're not a junkie!"

"For God's sake, Starsk--"

Hutch pushed away from the car, almost losing his balance, and faced the dark expanse of the desert, shuddering. Starsky couldn't tell if he was cold, scared, crying, or just coming off his high. He could have even been laughing.

But then Hutch reached back for the sweatshirt and yanked it over his head, the hood catching. Starsky helped him pull it down, and Hutch didn't resist. Starsky held out the jacket, and Hutch put his arms through. Starsky helped him zip it up, noticing that his partner's hands were shaking too hard to manage it on his own. Hutch was definitely not laughing...

Hutch held out his hands. "Go ahead and cuff me. Just do it."

"I only need one hand," Starsky said. "Give me your right one."

"Oh please. You're not going to cuff us together?" Once again, he sounded like "his" Hutch again.

"I need the right one."

Hutch almost seemed to shrug off the moonlight. But he held out his hand.

He didn't flinch as Starsky slapped on the metal cuff. Or when Starsky took the other cuff and slapped it around his own wrist. The sound of it locking into place sounded unbearably resolute, and Hutch seemed to panic in earnest. He started pulling away, hurting both of them. Starsky winced at the metal cutting into his own wrist. Wondered why Hutch didn't seem to feel it. But he kept pulling.

"I can't do this, Starsky! You can't do this to me. We're never going to get over this, you know."

"Stop fighting me, Hutch. We're together in this. This 'is' us right now."

"This isn't me. Dammit Starsky, I'm coming out of my skin."

"You gotta sleep."

"Look at me. Do you even see me? I said that I'm coming out of my skin. How the hell am I supposed to sleep?"

Starsky tried to get a good look and sure enough -- Hutch's face was drenched with sweat, even in the cold. He was shaking, slurring his words. Starsky began to wonder if going cold turkey wouldn't have been better than this.

"You'll sleep," he said more gently this time, and with his free hand, he tried to rub the back of his partner's neck. "You can bank on it. You're sick, Hutch, but you're gonna get better. I'll help you tonight. I can give you a Valium to help you sleep, but you gotta know I can't do this much longer. We're gonna get you off this crap."

Hutch seemed to crumple at the gentle voice, and he pulled out from under his partner's hand. Apparently, he could handle Starsky's anger but not his pity. All Starsky could see now of his partner was sadness, pervasive and cutting.

"Just give me something," he mumbled. "Don't care what... don't want to feel anymore."

This time, Starsky noticed that Hutch wouldn't even look at him when he swallowed the Valium dry, without taking the proffered water.

Later, much later, after the medicine had kicked in and Hutch was dead to the world, Starsky lay next to his partner. Their hands were cuffed together between the two sleeping bags on the still warm sand. Hutch wasn't going anywhere, but Starsky couldn't sleep. So he kept his eyes fixed on the night sky, just thinking.

There were thousands of stars overhead, but he knew that there were about a hundred billion he couldn't see. It should have been beautiful.

Starsky could hear his partner breathing in deep sleep, and that should have been beautiful too. Knowing Hutch was alive, knowing he couldn't go anywhere without him. It was an assurance that he'd never had on the street, and he certainly hadn't had it after his terrible discovery that Hutch was using. At least out in the middle of nowhere, keeping Hutch alive was something he could control. Starsky was never going to lose his partner again to anything. Not even to Hutch himself.

In his sleeping bag, Starsky swore he could feel the earth moving underneath them. But the stars weren't going anywhere. Years ago, on the first camping trip they'd taken together, Hutch had told him that true stars were either "fixed" or "wandering." Archaic names, given in ancient days, but somehow they remained.

Fixed or wandering, buddy, what the hell are we?

But he was too far-gone for half-assed metaphors.

"Man oh man," he whispered. "How'd we get ourselves in this one, Blintz? How'd I miss what was going on with you, huh? Guess I shoulda seen it coming..."

Once he'd seen it coming, it had already been too late. Starsky absolutely blamed himself for that. He'd screwed up his most sacred responsibility. He hadn't taken care of his partner.

And as his eyes closed under a sky full of wandering stars, Starsky began to dream, going back in his mind to the moment he'd realized for sure that Hutch was not all right. That somehow Starsky had missed it. That they might never be all right again...

Starsky wanted to collapse, but he had to go through the mail first. Time to pay bills again. Hutch had done such a good job keeping up for him when he'd been recovering from his abduction, that he still had to remind himself that it was his responsibility. It had been a bad day. They'd gotten in the middle of a domestic disturbance, which was always the worst. An eleven-year-old kid had been beaten up badly enough, getting between his drunk mom and dad, they'd had to call in Social Services. By the time a foster family had been lined up and they were finished with their report, Starsky realized he'd gone the whole day without eating anything more than a bag of M&M's and a box of raisins. Thinking back, he honestly couldn't remember if Hutch had eaten anything at all.

Hell of a job. He had to believe they were making the world a better place, because if he didn't believe that, then he couldn't remember the point anymore. But he knew they were doing good. Tomorrow would be better.

Then he snuck a glance at his partner. Hutch had been quiet all afternoon, but that was hardly unusual. He'd been quiet a lot lately, disappearing into himself. There'd been something wrong for weeks, but Hutch wasn't talking. Hutch's over-protectiveness had wound down some since Starsky's abduction, which he was more than grateful for. Figured they'd be getting back to normal. But something else had been happening -- something Starsky didn't understand. Something had come between them, and for the life of him, Starsky didn't know what it was...

Hutch had disappeared into the bathroom when they got back to Starsky's apartment and had been holed up in there for a while, taking his backpack with him. Starsky thought maybe he was taking a shower, but he hadn't heard the water running. Now Hutch was sprawled out on the couch, a beer in hand. His second. Maybe his third. Starsky tried not to worry. Sometimes, Hutch went through dark moods and had to find his own way out. Probably a phase. Maybe they should talk. Maybe he should save the rest of the mail for the morning.

But he frowned when he picked up a familiar square envelope. This must have been the fifth one he'd gotten. Starsky tore it open, already outraged. Not again... he hated these people! It was like they knew something, he didn't. Why did they keep sending him these things?

Starsky held it up. "Now this should be illegal," he announced. "I say we do a little investigating. I know for sure this can't be on the up and up."

The fact that his partner didn't answer didn't really bother him. Starsky never really needed a response. Knowing that Hutch was his captive audience was usually enough.

"How do you like this?" Starsky waved the letter in the air. "Says here I'm eligible to win a free pre-paid cremation. What kind of junk mail is this? Used to be you'd get lucky and win the lottery. Now they're offering to burn you to ashes and not charge you for it!"

Hutch was still staring into space. Didn't even look up.

Starsky continued anyway. "Hutch, you gotta hear this. It says, 'Dear David. WIN a pre-paid cremation. Complete all the reply slip information and you will be eligible for a drawing next month.' Helluva way to get someone's name on a mailing list."

He glanced over. Still no response. Starsky continued, this time sidling a little closer to his partner. "Hey Hutch, says here that last month's winner was Miss Dorothy S. Stewart. Whattya think? Think she's already collected her prize?"

Starsky tossed the letter on his partner's lap, but Hutch made no effort to pick it up. Normally, Hutch would've been in stitches over the letter or at least making a wisecrack about how only Starsky got death threats as junk mail, but this time, he wasn't biting. It was like he wasn't even there. Hutch was just sitting on Starsky couch, for all the world looking... like he was lost.

"Hey Hutch, you with me?"

At that, Hutch glanced up, startled, as if only just then realizing he wasn't the only one in the room. He looked down at the letter in his lap and picked it up bewildered, as if it had just materialized out of thin air, along with his partner. Then, he stared back at Starsky.

And God help him, Starsky had seen that expression before. Hutch's eyes weren't right. They weren't focusing. His pupils were pinpricks. Black dots in a glassy sea. They took Starsky back into a flashback of his own... back to a filthy alley just a year ago, when he found his partner and best friend, wretched and retching and...

No, no, no, no. No!

Starsky felt it first as a betrayal. Like all the air had left the room and Hutch had found another way to breathe but hadn't let him in on it. He wanted to grab his partner by the collar and pummel the truth out of him. Why, why, why? What the hell are you doing without me? A thousand questions clamored for attention, but immediately, he shoved them all back and let the cop take over. Breathe deeply. Pay attention. Gather evidence. It might not be what you think it is...

Starsky took a very deep breath. And let it out. Once more and again, until he figured out how to breathe in a world with no air. Air was nothing. Take it or leave it. He could take anything but a world without Hutch. And that was how Detective Sergeant David Starsky managed to hold it together.

"Hey, how's it going?" It was the voice he used when approaching an unstable perp, but Hutch didn't seem to notice.

No answer. No reaction, even. Oh God, Oh God. What kind of partner was he that he didn't notice this before? What kind of friend was he?

He tried again. "Hey, Hutch, you with me?"

Then Hutch eyes widened, and he obviously tried to shake himself out of it. Even managed a smile.

"Sorry, Starsk. I'm kinda tired. Need more sleep, I guess." He picked up the letter, squinting like it was written in another language. "What the hell is this?"

But Starsky took it from him. Didn't matter if his hand was shaking. Wasn't like Hutch would notice.

"Junk mail," Starsky said, abruptly, snatching it back. "It's nothing. Better get you to bed."

"But this is your apartment," Hutch said, confused. "I gotta get home. Water my plants..."

"No!" Damn it, he said it too quickly. The cop in Hutch would hear the desperation. Like he predicted, Hutch shot his partner a deepening frown, already suspicious. Starsky forced himself to tamp it down. "Crash at my place tonight, okay? You look awfully... tired, Hutch."

Hutch shrugged. "I am tired. Do I have anything to change into?"

Starsky made himself smile. "Half the closet's your stuff anyways. Go ahead and get ready."

Hutch smiled again and stood, obviously a little shaky on his feet. Starsky studied that unsteadiness, wondering why he hadn't seen it before. Obviously, this was the first wave of whatever he'd taken. Hutch had been in the bathroom for so damn long... he'd had the backpack with him. Whatever he was taking, he'd probably stashed it in his bag. Damn it to hell, since when had Hutch started carrying a backpack? Why hadn't Starsky noticed? The clues were everywhere. Any first year rookie could have sniffed them out. Any first year rookie would have noticed that his own partner was a--

No. Not that.

Starsky tried to catch his breath, while the world kept spinning and spinning. Had to catch his breath... catch his partner... had to have a plan. But his whole world kept spinning...

Starsky woke up trying to hold on, feeling like the ground was giving out from under him. But it was only the shifting sand. He rolled over a bit and with his free hand, he reached for his partner. Hutch was still sleeping, crowded way down into his sleeping bag. He was obviously too out of it to pull away from Starsky's hand. His face felt warm but not feverish. So far so good, but Starsky had absolutely no idea what they were going to do next.

Leaving his hand there tucked against Hutch's cheek, Starsky closed his eyes again and tried not to dream about morning.


Distances didn't mean so much in the desert. Through the dirty window, Hutch could see the wind against the sand. It took time and persistence to erode mountains.

Hutch had given up trying to tell the difference between here and there. Instead, he was marking time by the pills that Starsky doled out. His partner had made it perfectly clear that he was running the show. Hutch didn't doubt that Starsky had a plan -- even if it was one that only Starsky understood. His partner seemed to be rotating prescriptions. There was a pattern to the pills -- white, blue, pink, and back again. Although Hutch couldn't tell for sure -- the handcuffs made it hard to turn around and look -- he could swear that Starsky was taking notes as well. Hutch sighed and closed his eyes. It was strange, but it was Starsky. Driving through the desert as his partner's prisoner, Hutch felt like he'd fallen into a funhouse of mirages and mirrors.

God, he hoped it was almost time for his next dose.

The pills made the whole thing seem less insane and even less humiliating. In any case, they made him numb, which was probably the most he could hope for, given the turn they'd taken. As far as Hutch was concerned, his life was most likely over. He'd never be a cop again. He wasn't even sure he wanted to be. The job had taken everything from him. The only thing that had made it bearable was in knowing he was looking after Starsky. But their partnership was over. Couldn't trust a cop who was a junkie. Couldn't understand why Starsky hadn't hung him out to dry.

But there was one basic truth in all this that he'd never admit to Starsky. If Hutch was going to hell, at least he wasn't going alone... In truth, he was kind of glad for the company. He didn't wonder that Starsky had found him out. He was actually kind of surprised that he hadn't found out sooner. Starsky was a good cop. The best, really...

Hutch couldn't stop yawning. It was a compulsion and not a comforting one. Could hardly keep his eyes open, but he also couldn't sleep. Didn't want to ask Starsky for anything, so he kept his fingers drumming on the pillow. Marking time. One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four. That did nothing for him, so he fiddled with the price tag attached to the pillow, worrying it with the edge of his finger. Usually, Starsky had a thing about taking off price tags. Must have had his mind on other things, like having a bar installed so he could more efficiently shackle his partner to the damn car. The inside of the Torino was meticulously clean. Normally, Starsky would have had to carve out a place in the back, among the trash that Hutch was always tossing over the seat. Starsky must have had the car detailed beforehand. It was considerate in an insane way. But, it also showed a level of premeditation that Hutch found terrifying.

This was no rash hideout at Huggy's. Starsky wasn't fending off Hutch's demons with a pot of sugared coffee and a cache of candy bars. He had a plan. That morning, they'd still been cuffed together while Starsky had been scavenging one handed through the trunk for their breakfast. While waiting, Hutch took a quiet inventory of the trunk's contents. For a man who hated going on camping trips, Starsky had put more time and effort into preparation than Hutch would have ever thought possible...

Tucked between the sleeping bags, duffels and jugs of water, he'd packed a couple loaves of bread, three bags of potato chips, two six packs, beef jerky, several oranges, a box of crackers, and what looked to be a lifetime supply of peanut butter and grape jelly. He'd also brought a bag of tamari almonds for Hutch and a Tupperware container of what looked to be Hutch's wheat germ, which had been previously stashed on the shelf above the range, along with most of his morphine. Starsky had obviously been going through his partner's cupboards, in more ways than one.

Their well-worn Monopoly game was stuffed underneath the chess set that Starsky had given him last Christmas, next to a stack of library books. With some irritation, Hutch realized that the library books were probably overdue and had most likely been checked out with his card, because Starsky had lost his own the month before and had been using Hutch's ever since. Inexplicably, Starsky had also brought along the piggy bank they'd kept between their desks for years. Their "nest egg" they called it on good days -- their "lush fund" on bad ones.

Hutch shook his head. It had to be time to pull over. He was dizzy and nauseous, and he had to keep staring out the window to himself from losing control of his increasingly rebellious bodily functions. His neck hurt, propped against a pillow like that, and his arms were numb and prickly from the handcuffs. The twitching in his legs was getting worse by the minute.

C'mon, c'mon, c'mon. Starsky, pull over.

Hutch could feel the itch for the drugs under his skin. He was almost glad that his hands were cuffed so he couldn't dig into his arms to try and let it out. How many hours had passed since his last dose? Had to be time for more. Maybe it was past time. Starsky must have gotten distracted and forgotten he was due. Hutch squeezed his eyes shut tight. Wasn't going to ask. Wasn't going to beg. His stomach was beginning to cramp, and his legs were twitching. Hutch joggled one after the other to try and ease them up, but his knees were bumping against the front seat.

Starsky asked over his shoulder, "Y'all right?"

"Fine, just fine," Hutch muttered under his breath, scowling and rolling his eyes at the cheerful question. Then, he couldn't wait any longer. "Isn't it time, Starsky?"

"Time for what?"

Hutch could feel his heart beating out a desperate tune. He felt like it would explode, if he didn't get out of the car. Couldn't breathe. "Don't you have to stop for... gas... soon?"

"Yep... yeah, I do. We should be comin' up to what Huggy calls a town. Claims there's a gas station and motel but couldn't promise more'n that, but maybe we could find some food. Betcha coffee sounds good, doesn't it? We're gonna stop for a night or two and then--"

"And then, what?"

"We're gonna sort things out."

Hutch let out a short breath. Didn't like the sound of that.

"Are you gonna give me anything?" There. He said it. He hated the desperation in his voice... but he said it, and he was starting to hurt. "I'm going to need something, Starsky."

Pathetic, Hutchinson.

"We'll talk about it when we get there." Starsky sounded like he was talking to an unreasonable child. Hutch also hated that.

"When are we going to get there?"

Terrific. Just terrific.

"Soon. I'd know for sure, if this damn map would stay on the seat..."

But Hutch wasn't paying attention to roads or maps or anything else but his ever-growing need. He was being swallowed whole into a misery of his own making.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. For most of Hutch's life, he'd gotten everything right. It had been a bright shiny life, the kind that sounded good in the Christmas letters his parents sent out every year. All the bells and whistles. High school with honors, captain of the wrestling team, and to put a bow on the package -- most likely to succeed.

And that wasn't all. Upon graduation, Kenneth Hutchinson had been accepted to a fine university -- the only one his father had allowed him to apply to. He'd met the right girl at the wrong time and for all the wrong reasons. Married her. Loved her. And she turned out to be the wrong girl after all. Hated her a little, but she hated him more. It was coming undone. The college. The marriage. His father's deflating expectations.

Entered the academy. Became a cop.

Then came Starsky. And his whole life changed. Went from singular to plural pronoun.

Me and thee.

Hutch had tried so hard to save the world, one victim at a time. It was what they'd both wanted, what they'd tried so hard to attain. Simon Marcus hadn't called him the "White Knight" for nothing. It was not quite worth the price of addiction just to prove that Simon didn't know everything.

Hutch closed his eyes, trying to find a comfortable position. Whatever genius designed the Torino had probably never sat in the back seat. Didn't really matter. Let Starsky take him where he wanted. His life, as a cop, was over. Dobey would have to find Starsky another partner. As far as Hutch was concerned, that was the worst thing of all. In trying to get everything right, he'd managed to get everything wrong. No one did failure quite like Ken Hutchinson.

It felt like an eternity since Hutch had been one of the good guys. He could hardly remember what it felt like...

About an hour after he'd first downed the morphine in the ER, Hutch wondered what he'd been so worried about. Why on earth had he felt like he needed to stay away from opiates? The pain relief was incredible. It felt like a miracle, too good to be true. He felt like he could walk on water.

Right from the beginning, Hutch was able to go back to the precinct and explain away his earlier funk as a "pulled muscle." His back still hurt, but the morphine made it bearable. He wished he could tell Starsky about the pills, but he knew his partner would hit the roof if he found out. It was the unspoken pact between the two of them, sealed by the hours of purgatory they'd spent in that little room above Huggy's bar: Hutch was never, ever going to take opiates again, no matter how badly he needed them.

But, that wasn't fair. Normal people could get hurt and take something when they needed it. Ben Forest had seen to it that Hutch could never be normal like that again.

At first, he was very, very careful. Kept track of every pill and even made sure he took them on a full stomach, just the doctor had told him. His back healed slowly, but it felt better, and it didn't keep him from doing his job. Hutch felt better, so he actually ate and slept somewhat regularly. This alone made Starsky so happy that Hutch knew he'd made the right decision for both of them in taking the painkillers.

The shadow of Simon Marcus was fading. Every day, Starsky seemed a little lighter and easier. By the time Hutch had been taking the painkillers for a few weeks, Starsky seemed almost back to his old self again. Hutch knew it was time to start tapering back, but somehow, he just couldn't bring himself to do it. Things were going so well...

Hutch knew he should quit. He could think of a thousand reasons to give the painkillers up, but none of them were good enough. It wasn't just about the pain any more. It had become a lot more than that.

The pills were generous. Seductive. They soothed him to sleep at night and made the hard days on the street go down so much easier. It wasn't just Marcus -- that was already becoming history. After the cultists made a deal with the D.A. in exchange for their testimony against Marcus, the black-robed fanatics were relegated to the underworld where they'd come from. They'd be in prison for at least a few decades. Simon Marcus, himself, wasn't going to be getting out in their lifetimes.

It was everything else that he needed help with -- the casual evil they fought against. Hutch had never found his hard shell as a cop. The misery they dealt with had always gotten to him, even though he'd tried so hard to cover it. There was so much he couldn't fix. The twelve year old hooker who had a habit of her own, the gang member who killed a pregnant mother because he could, the businessman who put out a contract on his secretary because she found out he'd been fixing the books. Every day was a new sad story, and the ending was never good. Was it so wrong that he still wanted a happy ending?

Hutch reminded himself that the pills helped him do his job. Helped him help people. Taking them made him a better partner and a better cop. Two pills when he got up in the morning, a couple cups of coffee, and Hutch found he could "good morning" Starsky into a grin that made him grin back. When it wore off a few hours later, a couple more pills made everything easy again.

Of course, he realized that the drugs weren't working as well as they used to. Realized he'd been upping his dosage a little at a time, until he was going through a bottle way too quickly. He knew that no single doctor would prescribe as much medication as he needed. He would have to find alternative ways of getting the pills. He didn't think of it as breaking the law exactly -- it was more like getting around the system, something he and Starsky had always been good at.

Even so, it was a surprise when he ran out of morphine a week earlier than he'd planned. He'd gone back once to Memorial and had gotten another month's worth. Before he wrote the prescription, the ER doctor said he knew a cop's life was busy, but Hutch really needed to get himself checked out by his own doctor. Hutch knew he wouldn't be going back to Memorial anyway. Starsky would be sure to find out. He'd have to find a different source.

But it was surprisingly easy to score more pills. He took the ER doctor's advice and went to his own physician who chided him for not coming in sooner. That visit was good for a month's worth of codeine and two refills. Hutch took that prescription to a pharmacy in Venice. It would be convenient to pick up his refills that way and no one would think twice about him visiting his neighborhood drugstore. The next week, he realized he was going to need more, so he visited a doctor that Dobey had recommended after Starsky was shot by mobsters the year before. This was an older doctor, used to treating cops, and he told Hutch he'd need to be more careful not to let the pain get out of hand. The doc said he'd seen far too many cases of cops who were too overcautious with painkillers and never got their careers back. Hutch kept nodding the whole time he was talking, grateful to have that expert confirmation that he'd made the right decision.

"Once pain settles in," the doctor told him, "it doesn't like to let go. Gotta treat it aggressively. Don't worry. We'll take care of this, Detective. And don't worry about your superiors finding out... I don't consider this official business, so there's no need to report it."

Hutch had that prescription filled outside town. Three refills of morphine. Hutch figured he was set.

But it wasn't long before he worried about running out. After the first refill, he'd stopped going through his insurance company and had started paying out of pocket. He was starting to come up short every month. He found a couple more doctors, a couple more pharmacies. He started to stockpile. Sometimes, he took the pills out of the bottles and counted how many he had. It seemed like he should have plenty. But every day, it seemed like he was taking more and more.

It took a wantonness that Hutch didn't know he had -- this promiscuous dance he did with doctors, pharmacists, and his partner. A certain invulnerability had come over him. Every day he didn't get caught, the feeling grew stronger. Maybe this was the secret to the obscenity of the job, the violence. He couldn't fix the world, couldn't save anyone but his partner. It was better to be numb.

Except Starsky was watching him. That was nothing new. Starsky was always watching him. They were partners. Watching each other. But this was a different kind of watching, the unsettling kind like cartoon eyes beaconing in the dark. Starsky was on to something, and like the good detective he was, couldn't be easily thrown off. Hutch was doing his best, but it was getting harder and harder to hide his problem from his partner.

Then there was this one time when Hutch had been sure he'd been found out. It had been a bad day. A real bad day. A veteran cop, who was set to retire next year, had been killed in the line of duty. They'd almost made it in time to save him, but not quite. Hutch held the man while he died. He still had dried blood on his jeans.

So he was sitting in front of the typewriter, trying to type up the report, but the words in his head just couldn't find their way to his fingers. He'd taken a couple extra pills in the bathroom a half hour earlier. They were a new kind, prescribed by doctor #6 who thought they just might be worth a try. He'd driven all the way to Van Nuys to get the prescription filled at a seedy pharmacy off Vanowen. It was behind a rundown Jewish bakery, and Hutch figured he could pick up a dozen cookies while he was there, the black and white kind Starsky liked best. They'd come in a cheerful pink box, which Hutch thought ironic, because they matched the new pills almost exactly. Ironic how pleasure came wrapped up in the same color...

The new pills were stronger than the codeine and made him fuzzier than the morphine, but he didn't have to take as many as often. Hutch hoped that was a decent trade-off, but it wasn't working out that well. Not only had he forgotten how to type, he couldn't even remember enough about the shooting to make sense of his report. He kept looking at the blood on his jeans and thinking about how it got there. But he couldn't figure out how to put it into words. It only came out as feelings, and those he couldn't translate into an official report.

And Starsky was watching him.

And Starsky said, "Hutch, we're buddies, right?"

Starsky was finishing the last of the black and white cookies. Hutch had been right. The gift had gone over well.

"Of course we are." Already, Hutch felt like he wasn't following.

"We don't keep secrets from each other, do we?"

Starsky sounded like a little kid, asking that question, but Hutch couldn't breathe. Of course, not. They didn't keep secrets from each other. They never kept anything from each other. A good cop never, ever lied to his partner. And it was more than that. There'd never been anything between them. No difference, nothing separating one from the other. No secrets. As Dobey liked to complain, Detectives Hutchinson and Starsky had always been a private party unto themselves. So what the hell had been Hutch been thinking, convincing himself he could keep something like from his partner?

The urge to tell Starsky everything was actually strong. Maybe, it could be Starsky's turn to fix things. Suddenly, Hutch wanted it more than anything -- to be able to hand it all over to his partner.

Starsky was waiting for his answer. Sizing him up. The worry in his expression was enough that it made Hutch feel overwhelming sadness. It would be too selfish to hand this over to Starsky. Even through the haze of the drugs, it hit him hard. He couldn't tell Starsky. Hutch had gotten into this himself, and he'd have to find a way out of it himself. It wasn't like he was going to be using forever. And yet, Hutch wondered what would happen if he took another pink pill so soon after the others. He didn't want to feel this. He could almost hear the drugs singing to him, like they did at night. They were calling him back to his dark little secret...

"Did'ya hear me, Hutch?" Starsky was almost pleading. "We don't keep nothing from each other..."

Hutch felt the little bottle in his pocket. Unconsciously, he shoved it down deeper where it wouldn't show.

"No secrets, partner," Hutch said, but his voice gave everything away. "Nothing you need to know."

Starsky looked so sad. "'Kay. But you let me know when you're ready."

And Hutch looked away, knowing that Starsky was still watching. Bright eyes in the dark.

Hutch shivered and shook in the back seat. He felt like he was being burned alive in an air-conditioned rendition of hell. Hot and cold, sweat and chills. In the mirror, he felt Starsky's eyes on him, still watching. Hutch decided that Starsky had known that day in the precinct, just by the way he was watching. All along, Starsky'd had him cold.

"Stop looking at me," he said. "I can take care of myself!"

"Sorry, not gonna do that," Starsky retorted. "I did for a while, and look where it got us."

But Hutch noted that his partner did look away, even as he started again groping for that damn map. It was dangerous, but Hutch knew better than to tell him to watch the road.


The clerk behind the desk at the motel arched an eyebrow when Starsky asked for a room with vacant rooms on either side. It couldn't have been that hard a request. As far as Starsky could tell from the deserted parking lot, the motel was practically empty. Off-season, he supposed. The motel clerk raised both eyebrows when Starsky asked if the door could be locked from the inside to keep someone from getting out.

"Theoretical question," Starsky clarified.

The man sucked his thin lips together into a tidy line. Starsky wondered how someone could be so pale living in the middle of the desert. It was almost like the elements had leeched all the color out of his skin.

Through an open door behind the counter, Starsky watched an arthritic, brindle-coated dog lap water from a toilet with a broken tank. The sight seemed too personal somehow, and he had to look away. Starsky suddenly felt terribly homesick. What were they doing here? Almost desperately, he missed Bay City and his apartment and his own life. Despite the thin trail of cool air coming from a portable unit, the room felt like it was closing in on him. Starsky had to fight the urge to turn around and hightail it back home in the Torino with his partner and take their chances there.

Starsk sighed. The clerk was waiting. As he handed over the money, Starsky wondered what kind of life it would be, sharing a couple rooms with an old thirsty mutt in the middle of the desert. He couldn't guess. There was a world of difference between the outside and what was really happening in the heart of a man.

But he walked back outside with the key to their room. Not wanting to take any chances, Starsky kept his partner handcuffed as he moved him across the motel parking lot. Sweat had already soaked through his own shirt, and Starsky knew it was worse for Hutch, whose body thermostat was going haywire. He'd been alternating between drenching sweats and shuddering chills for the past few hours.

Aw Hutch, how could you have let this happen?

Even though it was hot, it wasn't so bad that a man could die by simply standing outside in the sun. By early summer, even breathing would be like fire going down. For once in his life, Starsky had no idea where he'd be or what he'd be doing a month into the future. The only thing he knew for sure was that he'd be with Hutch and that Hutch would be with him. Nobody ever accused Starsky of being a man who didn't learn from his past mistakes.

How the hell did I let this happen?

Starsky wasn't planning on making any more mistakes.

When they were almost to the door, the clerk stepped out of the office, squinting at the two of them in the harsh desert sunshine. The dog weaved unsteadily out after him. Damn. He'd been hoping to get Hutch into the room without anyone noticing. How hard could it be -- the place was practically deserted. Had to think quickly. His gun was visible in its holster, because he'd tossed his jacket in the back. Quick, quick. Had to come up with some reason why he was leading a handcuffed man to the room. Protective custody? An escaped mental patient? A witness for the state? All the explanations that Starsky had rehearsed were stuck somewhere in his exhausted mind. And he'd left his badge in the glove compartment. All Hutch would have to do was say that he was being kidnapped, and the motel clerk could be on the phone calling the CHP, and...

But Hutch turned and slammed his partner with an awful smile.

And he told the clerk, "Drug bust gone bad. He's a cop. I'm a hype."

It was almost the truth, but it was also the ugliest thing that Hutch had said. They weren't partners -- just a cop and junkie. Starsky felt it like a body blow. And he wasn't sure whom he was the angriest with: the motel clerk, Hutch, or the universe at large. Or himself. At that dark moment, it was pretty much a tie.

Looking duly alarmed, the motel clerk hurried down the gravel pathway back to his office and slammed the door. Starsky was pretty sure the man locked it, and he sincerely hoped he'd stay there for the rest of their stay. Still furious, he unlocked the door to their room and shoved Hutch inside, not caring when his partner almost fell onto the bed. Starsky slammed the door and wrinkled his nose. The room reeked of mold and insecticide, and the peeling walls almost looked like they were sweating. A small air conditioning unit had been installed crookedly in the window, and Starsky immediately turned it on.

Running his hands over his bleary eyes, Starsky wondered if he should have committed Hutch to a rehab center after all. There was supposed to be a good one in Santa Monica. Hutch could have been getting better in the fresh ocean air and not suffocating in a seven dollar a night room. If Starsky had committed him, Hutch might never have spoken to him again. But at least he'd be surrounded by experts, as opposed to being kidnapped by a sleep deprived partner who had no idea what he was doing. Exhausted as he was, Starsky couldn't remember why he'd decided that this was a good idea.

But then he took a better look at his partner, curled up on the bed, and his heart softened. Hutch looked miserable, his eyes bloodshot to hell, and his skin pale and covered with sweat. The crap he'd just said to the clerk came out of a world of hurt, and to his surprise, Starsky knew that he could forgive him just about anything. He could never leave Hutch; he was in it for the long haul. And it was a good thing, because their ordeal was just getting started. It had been eight hours since Hutch had taken his last dose.

"You need to give me something, Starsk."

Hutch's voice was a plea from the past, come back like a resurrected nightmare.

"Can't do that, buddy. I'm sorry."

"It'll be the last time, I promise." Then Hutch groaned and drew his knees up, trying to ride out the cramp with hands cuffed back like that. Immediately, Starsky strode to the bed, the key already out of his pocket. He unlocked the cuffs, and sat next to Hutch, trying to rub feeling back into his arms and hands.

"We're gonna get through this, Hutch. We're gonna be all right."

"It's my life," Hutch mumbled, pushing him away. "You can't make this choice for me."

"Our life," Starsky corrected, but he kept his distance. "And the way I see it, you're not doing such a good job on your own. Until you're better, I gotta make all the choices, and that's how its gonna be, Blintz."

Hutch rolled over and glared, like he couldn't hide it any more. Weariness. Misery. Unbridled defiance.

Addict.

The word came to Starsky, unbidden. He'd seen it too many times before. The way addicts controlled others through the heartstrings. At this point, Hutch would lie... cheat... steal. Do whatever it took to get another fix. But it didn't matter. Starsky wasn't going anywhere, no matter how much wanted him to.

Starsky sighed. As a cop, he knew enough to have a plan, even if it wasn't much of one. Hutch needed a bath; they both did, but Hutch needed it more. His wrists were bruised and swollen, but fortunately weren't bleeding. Without asking, Starsky pulled his partner up by his arms and practically heaved him across the room to the bathroom. There was barely enough room for them between the toilet and the tub, and the single light bulb made Starsky feel nauseous himself, flicking on and off like that.

But as it turned out, they made it in the nick of time, and Starsky stood by while Hutch was sick over the toilet. Throwing up didn't seem to help, and Starsky ran cool water in the tub, grateful it was a tub and not a shower. Hutch would never be able to stand up safely for long enough to take the kind of shower he needed. Somehow, they managed to peel off the clothes that he'd been wearing since Starsky had snatched him outside Venice Place. He'd bought Hutch the light blue shirt with the guitar embroidered on back for his last birthday, but now Starsky never wanted to see it on his partner again. He wondered if he left it outside under the desert sun, whether it would spontaneously combust, like everything else that would never be the same again.

With Hutch in the tub, Starsky figured it would be safe to get their things from the car. It wasn't like his partner was going to be making a break for it, no matter how bad off he was. He opened the door to the parking lot and breathed in that heat. As always, the sight of his car cheered him up a little.

The Open Road. Me, Thee, and the Torino.

Starsky had to shake his head at his grand plan. It had seemed like a good idea at the time...

"So, what's the plan? You gonna tell Captain Dobey?" Huggy was talking so quietly, Starsky had to strain to hear him, even though they were sitting alone in Huggy's room.

Just being in the place made Starsky feel queasy. He'd never wanted to come back after the hell with Hutch and his withdrawal from heroin, but he swallowed his squeamishness. He was just going to have to get used to the fact that his hell wasn't over. Just like last time, this conversation needed to be shrouded in absolute secrecy. If Hutch was ever going to have a future as a cop, nobody could ever know about it.

"You're the only one who knows, and the only one who's gonna know -- got that?"

Huggy shook his head. "Starsky, you can't gonzo it this time. My man Hutch needs help, and I mean real help. Nobody pushed this on him, and--"

"I know that!" Starsky forced himself to calm down. Huggy was not the enemy. Hutch was doing a good job with that role, all on his own. "I know what the stakes are, but I'm not hanging him out to dry."

"You worried bout his days as a cop being numbered?"

"I'm worried about the days of his life being numbered, Hug. I just can't understand why he started back with this crap again."

Huggy leaned forward. "Are you sure he's using, Starsky? Are you absolutely sure?"

Starsky ran his hands over his eyes. He was sure, but he wished like hell he wasn't. Hutch's dilated eyes hadn't been enough. So, he'd gone looking for evidence. The following day, he'd let himself into Hutch's apartment, using the key his partner still kept on the lintel. It never ceased to amaze Starsky. Even after Forest, Hutch hadn't lost the foolish idea that he didn't have anything worth taking...

But Starsky made himself think like a cop, not like a partner. He needed to look in the places he would expect an addict to hide illegal drugs. It didn't take long. He found some morphine under Hutch's mattress, a couple bottles of codeine in a container of desiccated organic nonsense, another bottle inside a roll of toilet paper under the sink, two bottles in his running shoes which obviously hadn't been worn in a while, and a couple more inside a coffee mug some nameless girlfriend had bought him for his birthday. The most recent prescriptions were actually in the medicine cabinet, almost like Hutch was sick of finding places to hide them. Starsky had no idea if he'd found everything, but he'd found enough. Carefully, he put it all back where he found it. He had his evidence. Now he needed to decide what to do with it.

"You still with me?" Huggy was waiting, drumming his long fingers on the table. "What're you planning to do about your not-so-better half?"

Starsky only looked at him.

"I'm gonna get him out of here," he said. "I'm getting him out of LA. God help me, Huggy, I don't know if we're coming back either."

"How?" Huggy sputtered. "You can't just take the man and run."

"Why the hell not?"

"Who even says he'll go with you? Starsky, have you ever known Hutch to go somewhere he doesn't want to?"

"No." Starsky pushed back from the table. He found his way to the door and kicked absentmindedly at the threshold. Looking back, he said, "I'm going to make him come with me, Hug."

"What--"

"I'm gonna take him. I'm not giving him a choice."

"You mean, you're gonna kidnap him."

"If you gotta put it that way, then yeah."

"How else should I be putting it? And, if you don't mind my asking, how do you plan to kidnap a cop who is bigger and taller and meaner than you, and not to mention stoned? I don't think that your partner is going to take well to being kidnapped..."

"You can help me, can't you, Hug?" Starsky asked. "And Merle can help. I don't need to tell him why, but I need him to install something for the handcuffs--"

"Handcuffs?" Huggy blew out a tight breath. "Starsky, you're way out of my league. Kidnapping a cop's not my bag -- I don't care if it is Hutch."

"But that's the point. It IS Hutch," Starsky growled. "You don't have to help me, but I am going to do this. He never wanted to get into the junk in the first place. Forest forced him, Huggy. They shot him up with that stuff, got it under his skin. They violated him, don't you see that?"

Huggy leveled a cold gaze at his friend. "I was there, remember? Ain't like I'm ever forgetting that. But, Starsky, you can't do this cold turkey. Dontcha know we could have killed him last time?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean the chance we took, getting him off H like that."

Starsky couldn't keep looking him in the eyes. "I didn't think about it. Once it was over, it was over."

"This ain't over, Starsky. We weren't thinking too clearly last time. This time, it's gotta be different."

Starsky didn't really want to know how'd he messed up. He couldn't stand the idea that he might have hurt his partner. But the stakes were too high. Denial was a powerful drug of its own, but he knew he couldn't afford it.

"Okay, tell it to me straight. Tell me what we did wrong."

Huggy looked him up and down. "Okay, I have this friend who runs a free methadone clinic. Doctor Bobby is what he calls himself. And he says that the last thing you want to do is go cold turkey..."

Starsky didn't want to listen to the litany of risks they taken, but he forced himself. Ignorance hadn't been bliss; it hadn't even been smart. Cold turkey was a dangerous method for withdrawal. Seizures were the most common complication, followed by asphyxiation from vomiting and fluid in the lungs. Heart failure was less likely, but it happened. From what Huggy said, it wasn't just a matter of surviving 48 hours of pain and sweat. They could've killed him. Starsky always knew he'd been lucky to pull Hutch through like they had. As it turned out, the stakes had been even higher.

They'd been even luckier than he thought.

Startled, Starsky looked up, suddenly aware he wasn't alone in the room. Hutch stood in the doorway from the bathroom, looking strung out and miserable, but at least he wasn't shaking as much any more. He'd been in the tub a long time and was wearing the tee shirt and loose pair of sweats Starsky'd pulled out for him.

"Your hair's wet," Starsky said.

"I'll live."

"You should try and dry it. Last thing you need is to catch--"

"We're in the desert, Starsky. I'm not going to catch a cold from wet hair, for God's sake."

"All right, all right." Starsky was willing to concede the point.

"No cuffs?" Hutch asked, tightly.

"Not now."

"How come?"

Starsky's face relaxed into a teasing smile. "What -- you're getting used to them or something?"

Hutch glared and eased himself down on the bed, like the ache went all the way to his bones. "Are you going to give me anything or not?"

"About that, Hutch..."

"Why'd you take it with us, if you weren't going to give it to me?"

"It's been two days. We've been tapering it down..."

"Two days is nothing!"

"Two days is an eternity." Starsky wasn't about to concede that one.

"I'm not ready." Hutch was back to rubbing his hands against the top of his thighs. Starsky wondered if it helped.

You're gonna kick this, Hutch. I'm gonna help you."

"You're too late. Help yourself instead. You should go home. Get back to your life."

"I'm not going anywhere without you."

"I'm in trouble, Starsk."

"I know it. I'm right here."

Hutch rolled gingerly onto his side, and turned away from Starsky, facing the wall. The shakes were coming back over him, almost like convulsions. For a minute Starsky was afraid Hutch was having a seizure, but it was most likely just bad chills. Starsky couldn't stand giving him space. All he wanted was to make it better. He sat down on the bed next Hutch and began rubbing his neck and shoulders.

"Easy, easy, boy. Trust me, you gotta trust me."

But Hutch wasn't above begging. "Please, Starsk... just give me one more. We can stop tomorrow. I need it so bad. You don't understand -- it's in me this time."

"Not for long," Starsky said fiercely. "We're gonna get through this. It'll be over, and I'm here... won't let it happen again."

"I need something... s-something to get me through."

Starsky hesitated for a minute. "I have some stuff I can give you. D'you want it?"

Hutch just moaned, and Starsky went to get the duffel bag he'd left by the door. He'd locked all the painkillers in the Torino, just in case he was tempted to give in and give Hutch something to ease some of the pain. Starsky had never been able to stand seeing his partner's suffering.

Starsky pulled out his steno pad, looking over his notes. It had only been a couple weeks since he'd met with Huggy's connection, "Doctor Bobby" who ran a free methadone clinic in the downtown district. The doctor had been the sole instructor for Starsky's crash course on prescription painkiller addiction. Starsky studied the page of directions like the map it was, telling him where to go...

"You can always go the methadone route," Doctor Bobby explained, leaning back in the chair he'd been straddling. "That's obviously what we do here, but it's not a perfect solution. I have patients who've been on methadone for years. Problem is it's still an opiate. Synthetic, but you're still going to be dealing with some of the same issues as Horse or any other opium derivative."

Starsky took a hard look at the younger man across the table. He didn't look much like a doctor with his loose ponytail and embroidered tunic, but he talked like one. More importantly, Huggy swore he knew what he was talking about. Starsky's choices were limited by the fact that he couldn't go to anyone who would get word back to the department. This man was the fourth person in the world who knew about Hutch, besides Starsky, Huggy, and Hutch himself. Despite his reservations, Starsky needed all the help he could get.

"I don't want him on another drug." Starsky said adamantly. He shuddered, thinking of the junkies he'd passed in the threadbare waiting room of the clinic. "Hutch is a cop. He can't be waltzing into a methadone clinic every day. I want him off the stuff. All of it."

"It's not going to be easy."

"Like anything ever is!" Starsky snapped. "I did this before. I thought Huggy told you. Got him to kick it last year."

"He didn't want the drugs before," the doctor shot back. "And yes, Huggy did tell me all about it. This is different. From everything I've heard, your partner's not a victim this time. He became addicted to painkillers out of his own free will."

"Free will." Starsky repeated the two words like they were a joke. "Nothing free about this... he didn't choose this! You don't know my partner. Hutch isn't a junkie. He's the strongest, bravest person I know. Damn it, I've almost bought it a dozen times, and every time he saved me. The last time... well, all you need to know is that he pulled me out of hell. He's a hero, and I'm not going to let him throw his life away after he's done saving mine!"

The doctor's skeptical expression softened. "You're stubborn. That's good... it's what it takes... but just remember, Detective... sometimes heroes turn into junkies. Things aren't always that black and white. There's a cost for all that sacrifice."

"Don't tell me about sacrifice," Starsky retorted. "I know all about it, and I know everything about my partner. Hutch is the good guy. He's just got himself... lost... right now. And don't go looking at me like I'm some kind of hero either. This is what we do."

"Which is what?"

"Save each other. Watch each other's backs."

"That being said, you need to understand that your 'hero' is now damaged goods."

Starsky couldn't help it. He grabbed the front of the doctor's tunic in his fist and drew him up inches away from his face. "My partner is not 'damaged goods'," he gritted out between his teeth, barely controlling the fury that had welled up so quickly. With a quick pant of disgust, he let go of the doctor.

The doctor got right back in his face. "If you'd let me finish, Detective, I was going to say that your partner's body is like a house that's been damaged in a storm. You need to build it back up. It's not enough to prop up the pieces and call it good as new again."

Ashamed of his temper, Starsky looked down at his clenched fists. "Just tell me what to do. I'll do anything, I swear it."

The doctor nodded, a cool customer, if Starsky'd ever seen one. "Your partner really needs to be in a hospital. You know that, don't you?"

"No hospitals!" It was all Starsky could do to resist the temptation to drive his fist through the wall. "No doctors, no offense, Doc. They're the ones that got him into this in the first place. When I was going through his pills, I counted six doctors -- six! All of them prescribing him different stuff, none of them checking on each other. They didn't care what was wrong with him. They just wanted to get him out of their office so they could make more money off the next poor sap in the waiting room."

At this, the doctor showed some signs of anger. "Now don't go blaming all this on doctors! What do you want? A doctor who willingly ignores a patient's pain? Now I may be wrong, but I get the feeling you'd knock me into the next county if your partner was hurting and I refused to treat him. Am I right?"

Starsky shrugged. The man was right, even if Starsky wouldn't admit it. But he was listening.

"Doctors can only do so much. Your partner's the one who decided to take pretty huge risks to score some junk. I'm not saying he wasn't in pain when he started. I just don't think it's only physical pain we're talking about. All the signs are there. There's no question in my mind he's an addict, and you're going to have to face that if you're going to help him. I see hundreds of junkies every week, and I don't believe in accidental addiction, Detective. Most people who take painkillers don't like doing it and stop once the pain is bearable. You've got to understand that addiction is the exception, not the rule, when it comes to opiates. Hell, the majority of people who experiment with heroin don't get addicted. The question I'd be asking if I were you, Detective Starsky, is -- why? Why your partner?"

"I don't know," Starsky said. "I wish I knew. Maybe, it's too hard being a cop. Everything we deal with... it doesn't come easy for him. Doc, I'd give up anything to help him. Anything to make this better."

The other man's face was unreadable. "I believe you would. I can help you. There are some things you can give him that'll at least take the edge off."

"Anything you got, Doc," Starsky said sincerely.

The doctor nodded. And then, he began detailing a regime to restore the damaged edifice, formerly known as Detective Sergeant Kenneth Hutchinson. Starsky tried to pay attention, but he couldn't take it all in. It wasn't until the doctor handed him back a steno pad that Starsky realized the man had been writing it all down as he talked. He hadn't even thought of bringing anything along to take notes on. Suddenly, Starsky felt overwhelmed by the inexplicable generosity of strangers, both for his sake and for Hutch's.

"Thank you," Starsky said. "I really mean that. And I'm real sorry about... how I acted before. Didn't mean to grab you like that. Guess I'm kinda on edge about all this. Do you think it's gonna work? I'm not gonna hurt him, am I?"

The doctor shook his head. "No worse than he's hurting himself." A little more kindly, he added, "You know, I do believe you're going to get him through this. But it's going to take time and a lot of faith to make it stick."

"That's what I got, Doc." Starsky was half way to the door, but he looked back and grinned. "I got time and faith in spades. And you don't know my partner."

"Where are you going to take him?"

"To the desert," Starsky said, as if he'd been planning it all long. "It's gotta be just Hutch and me and nobody else."

"Will you be coming back with him?"

Starsky paused, frowning a bit at the question. "I don't know," he said. "Maybe Hutch'll be the one who decides that. He's my partner. I go where he goes."

He made his escape, trying not to look too closely at the room full of addicts, waiting for their next fix...

Starsky stood quietly, head down, just thinking. He hoped he was doing the right thing by his partner. He'd gone with his gut, but how on earth did he know if his gut knew what it was doing? After all, no matter how many times he had rehashed the past couple months, he hadn't seen Hutch going down. His instincts, when it came to his partner, had failed both of them.

"Starsk?" The miserable voice came from the bed. "You said you had something for me...?"

"Yeah, yeah, coming, hold on a minute."

As he dug through the duffel, Starsky was infinitely grateful for "Doctor Bobby's" notes. He'd have never remembered all this on his own.

"Starsk?"

"Just gimme a minute, Blintz. I gotta figure this all out. It's kinda complicated."

Hutch rolled over. Another horrific spasm was surging through, and Starsky winced in sympathy as Hutch cried out in so much pain, trying to find a comfortable position. Setting aside all the bottles and instructions -- they could wait -- Starsky found his way back to Hutch.

"Breathe." Starsky sounded calm. He said the word like he knew what he was talking about. "Just breathe through it, buddy. You'll remember how to do it again."

"Not enough air," Hutch moaned. "God, Starsk, it hurts. I can't do this."

"I'm here. You can do it. You just gotta breathe."

Starsky could see his partner really making an effort. He took deep breaths, one after another, and sure enough, the cramping did seem to be getting better. Together, they both eased up.

Hutch managed a small smile -- the first real one Starsky could remember seeing for days. "You keep promising me you got something for me to take..."

Starsky grinned, feeling much more sure of himself. Maybe he did know what he was doing...

"Well, I'm a guy who keeps his promises." He went to the duffel and dug a cup, heading to the bathroom to fill it. "Okay, let's see what we got here. I've got Benadryl and a couple Tylenol."

Hutch took the water and tried to prop himself against the wall before he held his palm out for the pills. "What on earth do I need those for?"

"Just trust me. The Tylenol's for aches, and you know... cramping. Headaches. The Benadryl's spose to help with nausea and sleeping."

"Starsky, who told you that?"

In other words, who else knows about this?

"Doctor Bobby."

Incredulous, Hutch stared. "Doctor Bobby? That can't be someone real. That sounds like a doctor on a soap opera."

"Well, he's not," Starsky said, feeling oddly defensive of the doctor who'd dared to be honest with him. "He's one of Huggy's connections. He told me what to do... when this happened."

"Terrific," Hutch said, darkly, but he swallowed the handful of pills that Starsky had offered him. Starsky noticed that his partner took a quick glance around the room, as if making sure nobody was watching him. Obviously a habit.

"Now you need to take some Imodium."

"Kaopectate? I don't want to take that. I hate that stuff--"

"Take it. You said you'd let me run this."

"I never said that. You're making that up."

"You didn't argue 'bout it when I said I had stuff to give you -- same thing as agreeing. C'mon, take it. Two spoons. It'll make your guts stay inside where they belong."

Hutch set his jaw, frowning when Starsky aimed a spoonful of the chalky substance towards his mouth. "You even brought a spoon? I can do it myself, Starsky!"

"Your hands are shaking. You'll spill it all over yourself."

"That's my problem. Remember that this is all my problem?"

"Yeah, I remember lots of things," Starsky growled. "Like how you got in this mess in the first place, thinking you didn't need help. This is our problem, partner."

"Give me the damn spoon."

Starsky waited until he was sure Hutch had taken all of it, and then he reached for another little bottle. "Ready for the rest of it?"

"I don't care what Huggy's fifth cousin told you, Starsky! This can't all be good for me."

"He's not one of Huggy's cousins. His name's Doctor Bobby. Runs the methadone clinic at 5th and Lincoln."

"Did he give you any methadone?"

"No." Starsky wasn't willing to elaborate any further than that.

"This is too much stuff," Hutch said, as Starsky handed him another handful of assorted supplements.

"Says the man who got himself addicted to painkillers."

They glared at each other, each man's short fuse just about burned out.

"Okay, what's next? Do you have a whole drugstore in that bag? I wasn't too far off saying you made a good pusher."

"Shove it, Hutchinson. Here's some B6. L-Tyrosine. Here's potassium. It'll keep your leg from twitching like that. If I can figure out how to get some hot water, I've got some 'Monk's Prayer' tea. And here's a Valium."

"I am not taking a Valium!"

But Starsky could tell by the arms hugging his middle, that the cramping was getting worse again. Hutch's eyes were filling up. Starsky would have thought his partner was crying, if the doctor hadn't told him that watery eyes were also a symptom of acute withdrawal.

"You took it last night," he said. "Go on, take it. The doc promised me this was a cocktail for getting better. I don't want you hurting any more."

Hutch took the proffered handful of pills and popped them in his mouth, downing the lot of them with only a swig of water. He'd had some practice at getting a lot of pills down the first time.

"Drink more," Starsky said. "We're in the desert, remember?"

"How could I forget? You kidnapped me and brought me here. Remember?"

"There's no free lunch, partner."

Starsky noted that Hutch didn't even ask what the hell that meant. They were both getting pretty worn down.

Hutch said quietly, "You shouldn't be here. You should go home."

"This is where I gotta be, Hutch. You know that."

And then Starsky knew that Hutch did know -- he could see it on his face. But he was hurting again. He rolled back onto the bed, curled up, but facing Starsky.

Starsky took a couple steps closer to the bed.

"Stay, all right, Starsk?"

Starsky let out a deep breath and climbed onto the bed, close enough that Hutch's face was almost against his hip. This wasn't working. Oh what the hell... He pulled his partner up and against him, so that he practically had him in his lap.

Just like before. Huggy's upper room, revisited.

"Hey, Hutch. Not going anywhere, dummy. Already told you."

Hutch didn't answer, but Starsky was very aware that his partner didn't pull away either. He let out a dizzy breath of relief. Light at the end of the tunnel and all that. He'd never really felt what that meant before. Starsky wondered if they'd ever really be on the other end of that tunnel, looking over their shoulders into the dark.


Starsky knew he should look at the map. But latitude and longitude only meant something when you knew where you were going. Starsky figured he might as well spit into the wind to see which way it blew, to give him a sense of direction.

Instead of looking over the map, he did a quick study of Hutch, slumped in the back seat. His partner looked tired -- exhausted, really -- but at least his eyes had lost that stoned glaze. He'd been off opiates for 48 hours, but he'd been pretty dopey with all the Benadryl Starsky had been pushing into him. It felt like a lifetime ago since Starsky had done much of anything besides watching his partner vomit and sleep.

"Can we go soon?"

Starsky loved hearing his partner sound lucid. It made him smile.

"What? This place isn't enough for you? Hey, buddy, this is more civilization than you're gonna see for a hundred miles around!"

Hutch rolled his eyes. They were parked in front of a sad excuse for a gas station with a single pump in a gravel dirt lot. The station was really a roughshod lean-to that also sold food and basic supplies. Inside, the bathroom had a sign on the door that said "Out of Order," so the amenities were limited to an ancient outhouse that backed up to the dunes. The desert yawned endlessly around them, with the sandy highway dividing the gas station from the motel they'd been staying in. Starsky had dropped the key through the mail slot of the motel office and didn't think he'd ever been so glad to leave a place behind.

"Civilization is relative," Hutch retorted.

Damn but that actually sounded like his partner. Starsky had to smile.

"Ah, but it's the company you keep that makes all the difference."

He looked over his shoulder, but Hutch wasn't smiling. Pointedly, he looked down at his cuffed wrists, which were once again locked around the bar.

"Am I your company or your prisoner, Starsk? How long are we going to keep this up?"

Starsky didn't know the answer to that one. It would be so tempting to pretend everything was back to normal. He'd helped Hutch kick his habit... they could go back to Bay City... everything would be bright, shiny and new. They'd figure out something to tell Dobey. With all the vacation time they'd piled up for the past year, they were overdue for some time off. Maybe Dobey would probably believe they'd gone off on a long-weekend road trip and had forgotten how to get home.

The responsibility of the whole thing settled like a dark weight on his shoulders. Hutch was his partner. Starsky loved him more than anything in the world. But he couldn't let more lies come between them.

Starsky sighed. "At some point, Hutch, you have to want to do this on your own. You've gotta want to kick it yourself. Be willing to work for it."

"I never wanted to do it in the first place."

"I know that. I really do know."

"I didn't, Starsk."

"I said I know."

"It's just that... it took over. Now, I don't know if I can give it up. I hate this, Starsky."

"I know you do." Quietly, he asked, "Is it everything though? Are the drugs worth this?" Starsky gestured expansively, taking in the desert, the gas station, the Torino, the handcuffs. Them.

Starsky watched in the mirror as Hutch studied his cuffed hands. "No. Not worth it. I don't know how I messed up this bad."

"Hutch, do you trust me?"

Hutch looked up and frowned. "I don't have any choice but trust you. You're in control. I get that, all right?"

"That's not what I asked. Do you trust me?"

It wasn't a question that had ever needed an answer before. It was their cornerstone, the way they got through the crazy life that they'd fallen into.

Who do we trust...? Like always, me and thee.

But Starsky knew that Hutch needed time to think it over. He let the car wait in an uneasy idle, fiddling with the vents to make sure the air was blowing in the back... it was already hot, and the sand and sun was doing a number on his car. His paint job would never be the same...

"I've always trusted you before." Hutch said it so softly, Starsky wasn't sure he heard him right.

"Then trust me now, okay, buddy?"

"It can't be that simple."

"It can be. It's not that hard, Hutch."

Hutch was angry again, but Starsky knew that anger for what it was. Kicking the addiction was only part of it. Somehow, Hutch would have to learn to forgive himself, and maybe that was going to be the hardest thing of all.

"I don't know why you don't just turn your back on me."

"Turn my back on you?" Starsky shot Hutch an exasperated look. "Why the hell would I do something like that?"

Yet, even as he asked the question, Starsky knew the answer. It was exactly what he needed to do. The realization both stunned and terrified him. In a wilderness of hard choices, this was the hardest one of all. He didn't know if he had it in him -- that kind of faith -- until he felt his own hand fumbling for the key in his jeans pocket. It was probably the stupidest thing he'd ever done, but Starsky leaned over the seat and dropped the handcuff key on the pillow beside his partner's cuffed hands.

Leaving the engine and air conditioning running, Starsky got out of the car.

"Where are you going?" Hutch called through the open door. But Starsky heard what he was really asking.

Are you turning your back on me?

This was the right thing to do. Starsky aimed a cocky grin at his partner. "To the john. Gotta take a leak. Be right back."

And with a wink and a diffident wave, he was gone.


It was Hutch's turn to be stunned. He sat in the back seat of the Torino, sweat running down his face. He could feel the back of his arms sticking to the seats. Hutch stared at the key to the handcuffs. The addiction -- no, the ache -- was overwhelming. Sensual and demanding, it pleaded with him to unlock the damn cuffs and run. Get behind the wheel... take off. For all he knew, the drugs were still in the trunk.

Starsky had even left the keys in the ignition, the engine running. The cool air from the air conditioning was aimed right at his face. What was Starsky thinking? Even though his partner seemed to think differently, Hutch had no grand illusions about himself. He was no better than any of the hypes they'd been busting for years.

But Starsky'd left the key. Almost panting with what it cost him, Hutch closed his eyes. He could almost feel desire burning through the hated handcuffs. Freedom and hell on one side. Starsky on the other. He was going to have to make a choice. For a minute, Hutch thought his body would choose for him. His fingers caressed the key. Then his mind caught up. Starsky was his partner. That trust had been bedrock underneath shifting sand.

"Oh hell, Starsk," he muttered. "Where would I go?"


"What the hell, Starsk?"

"Get in the car, Hutch."

"What is this?"

"It's exactly what it looks like." Starsky kept the gun steady on his partner. "Cuff him, Huggy. But first get his gun."

"Huggy? What are you guys doing? I don't understand." Hutch raised his hands, even as he felt Huggy reach under his jacket and slip his Magnum out of its holster.

"I think you do. How much did you take today, Hutch? When did you take it? Now are you understanding?"

Hutch took a step back. "Starsky, I--" he began, but stopped himself almost instinctively.

Starsky's breathing was ragged and raw, like he'd been chasing down a perp and couldn't suck in enough air. They were both sweating, soaked with it. Almost frantically, Hutch wondered if he could take him. Backed up against the Torino, Hutch could see his own LTD, parked at an awkward angle across the street. If he could get in a sucker punch, he could make a run for it. Take off who the hell knows where. The gun had to be out for show, to scare him. Starsky would never hurt him... Huggy wouldn't let this get out of hand. Hutch could feel his heart beating so hard, he could hear it echoing in his ears. The drugs made him feel invincible, even as they made him feel like the weakest man who'd ever lived.

"Don't think about running."

Starsky always knew what he was thinking. Knew the hidden, dark places inside...

"Let me go, Starsk--"

That's when Hutch saw it, and this time, he felt it like a punch to the gut. The fact that Starsky was crying. His shoulders were shaking. Starsky never cried. He flipped the safety on his gun.

"I love you, Hutch, but I swear I'll shoot you if I have to."

Hutch wiped furiously at his own eyes. It was over, all over.

"What is this about?" Hutch thought he knew, but he needed to hear it out loud.

Starsky shook his head, but kept his gun hand steady. "Don't lie to me. I deserve better than that."

Hutch turned pleadingly to Huggy, but his old friend wouldn't look him in the eyes.

"Huggy, please--"

"Not this time, Blondie," he said, sadly. "This here is Starsky's show."

"What are you gonna do?" he turned, imploring his partner, hating the sound of his own drug-slurred voice. He tried to resign himself to his inevitable fate, like any other perp would do. He was made. Who was he to think he could hide from Starsky, the best detective in the precinct? "Are you taking me to Metro? Have you already told Cap'n Dobey?"

Starsky glared, his eyes hard again. Definitely not crying. "I'm not arresting you, Hutch, what'd you think? Think I'd come after you with a warrant? C'mon, Huggy, cuff him."

Huggy slapped the cuffs around one wrist, but Hutch hardly noticed. Stunned, he allowed himself to be shoved into the back seat. He noticed the bar. Where the hell had that come from? Starsky moved forward and wrapped the chain around the bar and slapped the other cuff around Hutch's other wrist.

"What're you doing, Starsk?" Hutch asked.

"I'm saving you, damnit."

And then Starsky slammed the door.


Starsky quickly decided he'd rather piss in the sand than take his chances in the outhouse that was swarming with flies. When he was finished, he stayed out of sight behind the station and tried to get himself together. This hadn't been part of the original plan, and to be honest, he had absolutely no idea what he was doing. Leaving behind the keys with his partner wasn't a leap of faith; it was a nosedive.

He could hear voices in his head: Doctor Bobby, Huggy, even Captain Dobey, who hadn't been told about any of this. The voices were all yelling over each other, and they were pretty mad at him for doing something so stupid. A junkie and his addiction were a private party. No room for tagalongs. Or partners.

Starsky's eyes felt raw and bloodshot from the wind that was coming down from the mountains. He had grit in his hair, his eyes, his nose, and even between his teeth. He was breathing sand like it was air. He was trying so hard to listen for what was going on, but all he could hear was the wind. Suddenly, he realized he was waiting to hear the engine turning, the car kicking into gear. Hutch knew how to make a getaway. He was a pro. If he wanted to, he could hightail it out of there so fast, Starsky wouldn't even be able to wave goodbye through the kicked up dust. Instead, he'd be calling for a ride from Huggy, and he'd deserve the earful he'd get.

It had only been three days since he'd last seen Huggy. Even then, he didn't whether he'd ever see him again. The first few hours in the car had been hell. Hutch had tried every trick in the book to try and convince Starsky he was making a huge mistake. It might have worked, if they weren't cops. Starsky knew the score, but Hutch couldn't help but try.

Addicts were debaters. Consummately gifted liars. They could reason and defend their position against the best orators around. They knew how to weave a world of lies around a single truth because nothing mattered but their drug of choice. They'd risk anything to get it.

For the first stretch of their trip, Hutch had plenty of excuses, some far-fetched and some almost believable:

I've been set up, Starsk. It could have been Forest. You know that Forest has connections outside prison. Hell, it could have even been IA. You know they've always had it in for us from the beginning. It's a set-up. Don't you think this is all a little too convenient, Starsk?

Robotically, Starsky had repeated the rules to himself -- don't argue, don't lecture, don't yell, just drive. But the betrayal was acute. He felt like a jilted spouse. Hutch had been cheating on him with the contents in the little bottles in that duffel.

When conspiracy theories didn't work, Hutch had tried a different strategy:

I didn't want it to happen. I was in pain, and you were getting better, Starsk, and I got into more than I could handle. I knew I was getting out of control, so I started weaning myself off it. I'm not using anymore. I swear to you that I was going to throw the rest of it away myself. Check the dates, Starsk. Most of those prescriptions are already over a month old...

Ah, that was closer to the truth, but it was still off.

The night before he'd taken off with Hutch, Doctor Bobby had called Starsky at home and reminded him, "Addicts don't really lie. They just make up their own truths."

But this was Hutch. His partner. They made up their own truths too.

From his partner, Starsky had learned that love didn't have limits. It got bigger when it needed to. It forgave without keeping score. Starsky's faith in his partner had nothing to do with the evidence. Sure, Hutch was guilty. He'd messed up. But Hutch was Hutch, regardless of what he'd done.

Starsky finally dared to find out what his decision had cost him. Almost shivering in the hot wind, Starsky peered around the building. The Torino was still idling by the pump, but he couldn't see inside with the sun glancing off the windows. Slowly, he began walking towards the car. As he moved forward, he felt the fear in his gut. One step after another, he kept walking forward. He couldn't breathe until he was sure. Until he was up to the window, looking in.

And he saw the sun glinting off blond hair through the glass. The pillow on the lap. The key, right where he'd left it. The prodigal shoulders shaking.

The still, cuffed hands.


Hutch didn't know how much time had passed while he sat handcuffed in the back seat. After a while, he decided to keep his eyes closed, so he wouldn't have to look at the key any longer. When an insistent tapping started up at his window, he opened his eyes to see Starsky looking in on him with the goofiest grin Hutch had ever seen.

Hutch had to smile back. Really, it was the only thing he had to offer. Starsky's show of trust had been the most insanely generous gift anyone had ever given him. Starsky opened the door and practically bounced inside, before fumbling awkwardly over the seat for the key and unlocking the cuffs. After untangling them from the bar, he stuffed them in his pocket.

Hutch looked at him quizzically. But Starsky didn't notice. He was so full of pent-up energy, he was practically buzzing -- Hutch couldn't count the number of times he'd seen his partner like this. Starsky leaned over and started talking, like they'd been in the middle of a conversation. Befuddled by it all, Hutch just sat there, making no effort to move or respond or do much of anything. He was very numb. And so tired. More than anything, he wanted to close his eyes and go away. But he had to try. He had to pay some of that generosity back to Starsky.

Trying to lighten things up, Hutch asked, "So. Got any plans for the day?"

Starsky matched his tone perfectly. "Thought we'd go for a drive. Sound all right by you?"

"Nothing better to do..."

Starsky had leaned back over and was inspecting the bruising around Hutch's wrists. But Hutch was getting tired of waiting for Starsky to put the cuffs back on, so he shrugged him off. God, he was so tired.

"D'you need to use the john?" Starsky waved vaguely toward the outhouse, as he settled back in the front seat.

Hutch wrinkled his nose with unmasked disdain. "No thanks. I'll wait for a nice dune somewhere. C'mon Starsky, what are you waiting for? Do what you need to and let's get out of here."

"I'm waiting for you."

"For me to do what?"

"To get out of the back. You're not planning on riding back there, are you?"

"I don't understand..."

"C'mon," Starsky continued. "There's room up front. Just gotta move some stuff outa the way. Unless you're more... comfortable back there, that is."

Not wasting any time, Hutch flipped the seat back so quickly, it almost knocked Starsky into the dash.

"Scoot over," he said, with a grin that was real this time. "You're in my seat."


They drove down the two-lane road across terrain that unfolded around them like a scroll. A couple hours earlier, Starsky had pulled off the main highway onto a shortcut of Huggy's. Starsky had no idea why he needed a shortcut, seeing as he had no idea where he was going, but he liked the idea of getting "nowhere" quicker. Always had. For hours, they'd been heading towards mountain ranges that never seemed to get any closer. Perspective wasn't worth much when it couldn't be trusted.

Starsky risked a sidelong glance at his partner. Hutch was sprawled across the long bench seat but kept shifting around uncomfortably, like his body didn't remember how to sit still in a car any more. A quick glance at the clock on the dash told him it was about time for another round of Doctor Bobby's cocktail. Although Hutch would never admit it, the concoction seemed to take the edge off the worst of the symptoms.

"Time for a break," Starsky said, pulling over.

Hutch didn't ask why. Even though he'd been promoted to the front seat, he certainly wasn't behind the wheel. Starsky wanted his partner back, but he planned to be the one calling the shots for the time being. He'd been exercising that authority at every juncture: how long they drove at a stretch, when they should take a break, what medicine Hutch was taking and when he took it, how much water he should drink, and even what he ate. Hutch had been remarkably compliant about most of it, which was a good thing, because Starsky wasn't about ready to give up control.

Starsky went back to the trunk to count out the next round of medications and supplements. The wind kept whipping his hair into his eyes, while he tried to write down what he needed to give Hutch in his notepad. He also noted that their jerky supply was getting low, and they'd need to buy more potato chips and beer wherever he could find them. Starsky'd already gone through most of their supply at the motel. Pretty soon, they'd be reduced to gritty peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which Hutch flat out refused to eat in the first place.

"If you get hungry enough, you'll eat," he muttered out loud.

"Who'll eat what?" Hutch asked. Starsky hadn't realized his partner was behind him. Couldn't hear the door open over the wind.

"Nothing." Starsky shook his head. "Time to take your stuff, Hutch, and I want you to drink a whole glass of water this time. I don't know about you, but my throat feels like sandpaper. Don't look at me that way -- I mean it. Want me to make sandwiches? The wind's so bad, we should probably eat in the car."

"Can't believe you're inviting me to eat in your precious car," Hutch grumbled, leaning against the fender. But he downed the handful of pills, drinking the whole glass of water like Starsky had ordered. He'd been refusing the Imodium since they'd left the motel. Getting Hutch's guts under control had been a major condition of leaving the motel, but Hutch seemed to be doing a lot better all day.

"How bout a sandwich?" Starsky prodded, happy with the fact that Hutch wasn't refusing to eat. Having crumbs in his car was a small price. Hutch had lost way too much weight. He was as skinny as he'd been in the academy.

He couldn't help smiling when Hutch answered like a kid. "You know I hate peanut butter and jelly. I've never liked it, Starsky."

"Hey, don't knock it. PB&J's got protein and fruit -- real grapes." Starsky picked up the loaf. "And this has wheat products. See here, says so on the label. Wheat Products."

"Starsky, it's Wonder bread. It has nothing in common with a real loaf of bread. It's full of preservatives. Just hand me the almonds, will'ya?"

"That's so it won't go bad. Do you know how long your sprouted-wheat-germ-guru bread would last out here? It'd look like a junior high science project by now..."

Hutch shrugged, popping a handful of almonds in his mouth. "Yeah, probably. That's what's supposed to happen to real food."

Starsky didn't bother making a sandwich for himself. He just took a big spoonful of peanut butter and stuck it in his mouth, alternating with bites of bread. They both shared some dried apricots and what was left of the jerky. Starsky nodded approvingly when Hutch took another big drink of water. They were sweating like crazy out in the open sun. Even in mid-spring, the temperature was probably about ninety. Hutch leaned heavily against the hood.

Starsky chided, "Hey, get off my car. You're gonna screw up the paint job. You gettin' tired?"

"This crap you keep giving me just dopes me up..." Hutch gestured inarticulately toward the trunk. "When are you gonna let me stop with that?"

"Patience." Starsky couldn't help but grin at his partner who looked like he could fall asleep standing up. Affectionately, he reached over and tousled his hair, which was already a mess in the wind. "Honestly, Hutch you gotta give it time. Doctor Bobby said--"

"Doctor Bobby... What kind of doctor is named Doctor Bobby?" Hutch had been repeating that question for the past couple days.

Not waiting for an answer, Hutch went back to the passenger seat of the car, attempting to fix his hair in the mirror, despite the wind. Starsky grinned and went back to reorganizing the trunk, which was already a mess again. He felt like he had to do it every time they stopped, but they couldn't afford to lose any of their supplies if things were always tipping over.

After Starsky finished, he stood for a minute, looking away from the Torino out across the desert. He was stretching and yawning and wishing like hell that he could take a nap, when a strangely familiar scent carried over with the wind. Smoke. He smelled smoke. Spinning around, he was terrified to see smoke coming from inside the car. Heart pounding, he raced around to the passenger side to find his partner sitting there, with a cigarette between his lips. In Starsky's car! Caught, Hutch took a last mournful drag from his cigarette, before Starsky snatched it away. Hutch didn't even have the common sense to look contrite.

"What the hell is this?" Starsky held it up disdainfully like he'd never seen a cigarette before.

"C'mon, Starsk, ease up. I hardly smoked it."

Outraged, Starsky tossed the cigarette into the sand, grinding it under his heel before Hutch could make a grab for it.

"You hardly smoked it, because I caught you! What do you think you're doing, smoking in my car? And where the hell did it come from? I sure didn't buy them!"

Hutch sighed and unlatched the glove compartment, revealing a lone pack of cigarettes and a lighter. "Satisfied? Here's my stash."

"What else are you hiding from me?" Starsky demanded, trying to tamp down on his rising panic and anger.

"Oh shut up, Starsky," Hutch said, just as irritated. "Back off! What're you gonna do -- handcuff me again? Obviously, I wasn't trying to hide it from you. You weren't six feet away, for God's sake. I just really wanted one bad, that's all."

"Where'd you get it?" Starsky was blocking the open door of the car, the possessiveness of his stance saying it all.

I'm still calling the shots. You still have to do what I say.

To his amazement, Hutch cracked a smile. "That guy from the motel gave it to me."

"Huh?"

"You know -- that guy who ran the motel? The one with the dog? Turns out that he's a pothead -- the motel used to be a commune back in the day, and he's the only one who's left. Guess he felt sorry for me. He came out and talked to me, while you were out back, filling up the jugs. I was still cuffed, so he hid the cigarettes in the glove compartment and told me not to give up on my dream."

"Terrific. So thanks to Mr. Hippie Desert-Rat, you have a new habit for me to kick."

"What's with you? Just, shove it, Starsky," Hutch retorted, and without more warning than that, he leaned forward and did shove him with both hands. It caught Starsky off guard and he fell backwards onto a patch of scrub. Hutch flinched but added, "You know, this isn't your problem to fix. I'm not your problem to fix. My problem, my life! You got that?"

"Screw you, Hutchinson!"

Starsky was ready to come back at him, but was surprised to see that Hutch didn't look mad, as he got out of the car. In a mock surrender, Hutch raised both hands, before reaching down to help Starsky up.

"No new bad habits, I promise," he said, ruefully, brushing sand and thistles off Starsky's back. "I've got plenty of old ones to keep me company."

"No more cigarettes," Starsky insisted, his interrogation glare still going strong.

"All right, no more. Here -- take them. Put them with the rest of everything else that I can't have. Okay? You forgive me?"

"Yeah, I forgive you all your crap," Starsky grumbled. He reached for the pack, and then took a deep breath. "Look, I'm tired, and I don't like driving in this wind. Long day. Let's just hit the road."

Hutch got up and headed back to the trunk. "Okay, but I need to brush my teeth before we go."

"What?"

"My teeth... I need to brush them. Where's my toothbrush? Don't tell me we left it behind..."

"We didn't leave anything behind -- I checked the room. Hey Hutch, how bout brushing your teeth later? I don't like this wind..."

"I can find it. It's always in the first or the last place I look."

Starsky couldn't help but grin, his bad mood easing up. "Well that would make sense, buddy. Most people don't keep looking after they've found something."

Obviously, Hutch had to think over that statement, because he paused for a moment, before he kept looking. "It's gotta be here. I feel like I just licked an ashtray. I'm kinda remembering why I quit smoking in the first place."

"Would this be a good time to say, 'I told you so'?"

Hutch didn't take the bait. "Where the hell is my toothbrush?"

"Here -- take mine, all right?" Of course, Starsky's own toothbrush was right where he'd packed it. Hutch was a slob and a terrible packer. Always had to pull everything out to find anything. "But then I get to take yours instead. Don't want mine comin' back cigarette flavored."

"Yeah, all right. Thanks."

"Here's some toothpaste. Oh, and you need water."

"Honestly Starsky, I do remember how to brush my teeth."

"I know you do." Starsky frowned at the sky, feeling strangely uneasy. Damn, but the wind was getting stronger. "You just gotta let me deal with this my way, Hutch. You're not ready to choose stuff on your own, and there's lots of stuff you're forgetting."

"What on earth am I forgetting? Actually, don't tell me. I don't want to know. I'm just gonna go find a place out of the wind. Gotta wash up and brush my teeth. I'll be right back. I promise."

Hutch grabbed a towel from the trunk and slung it over his shoulder as he trudged off down the arroyo, with the toothbrush, toothpaste, and a jug of water. Starsky shook his head affectionately, before returning to his packing. Hutch was a creature of habit and did things a certain way, no matter where he was. Grab a towel, brush teeth, and wash up -- it was exactly his routine, even if he did happen to be surrounded by miles of brush and sand. And the worst wind he'd ever seen.

That was exactly what Starsky was thinking when it happened. When the wind changed.

He heard it first. "Like a freight train" might have been a cliche, but that was exactly what it sounded like. The sand seemed to change colors, turning from gold to dull brown in a matter of seconds. Just like a bomb had gone off, the air exploded with sand, while the wind went rabid-crazy all around him. Starsky couldn't see the sky. It was like the desert was trying to swallow him whole. Instinctively, he grabbed a towel out of the trunk, finding it by touch alone. Couldn't open his eyes, without being blinded by the flying sand. As best as he could manage, Starsky wrapped the towel around his face and neck.

"Hutch?"

Even with the towel, Starsky's shout ended with a mouthful of sand. He spit it out and peered out from underneath the towel, trying to see if his partner was coming back. Instead, he caught a glimpse of one of the scariest sights he'd ever seen; the sand was undulating underneath his feet, like an unsettled sea.

"Hutch!"

Starsky could hardly even hear his own voice over the wind. But he hadn't gone to the trouble of saving his partner, only to lose him in a stupid sandstorm. He began bullying his way through the wind, praying he was heading in the right direction. Had to find him. This had been a mistake, a really big mistake. He should never have brought Hutch out here. No living thing should be out here. The wind was feral. It was like walking into the breath of a volcano.

Staggering forward, Starsky kept going until he tripped and fell on his face. He knew it was bleeding by the fact that the sand was now sticking to it, even underneath the towel. But Starsky kept going, trying to keep his head down, until finally, his hand reached for something that wasn't desert scrub. Something that was warm, alive, and wonderfully human. Hutch.

Like drowning men, they clung to each other amidst the drag of wind and sand. There was no point in trying to talk. Couldn't have heard each other anyway. Wrapping the towels around their faces and shoulders, they blindly groped in the other direction, with the wind this time at their back. Starsky felt like his exposed skin was being flayed alive. He had no idea if they were even going in the right direction. If worse came to worse, they would die together. It sure beat the hell out of dying alone.

Starsky was about to try another direction, when his head bumped into the fender of his car. If not for the fact that his lips were bleeding, Starsky could have kissed it. Instead he groped for the door, and upon forcing it open against the wind, he shoved his partner inside. For a minute, he stood there in the blinding sand, his brain muddied with the shock of it all. Running his hand blindly over the ruined paint job, he sincerely wished he'd brought along his partner's car. But, Hutch's hand found his wrist and yanked him impatiently inside. Starsky landed, heavily, practically knocking the wind out of his partner. Despite that, Hutch managed to shut the door.

For a minute, they just lay there, tangled together on the front seat, struggling to catch their breath while the sand sprayed against the windows like it was still trying to get them. Slowly, painfully, they started to extricate themselves from each other. Starsky still couldn't open his eyes, which were filled with tears and sand. Everything was burning. He fumbled in the back for a stashed jug of water. It took a couple handfuls of water slashed against his face until he could open them again. He could just make out the blurry shape of his partner. Hutch's eyes were also shut tight, his face almost masked with sand. For once, Starsky could have care less about the leather interior of his beloved car. Without thinking twice, he poured a stream of water over Hutch's head, making sure it flowed over his eyes and face.

"What on earth, Starsk?" Hutch sputtered, trying to open his eyes.

"Hold still! Keep them closed," Starsky gritted out. And he upended the jug, pouring even more of it over Hutch's head.

Hutch shook out his hair and reached for the water. Without a word, he did the same for Starsky.

Soaking wet and still coughing out the sand in their lungs, they collapsed against the seat until they could get themselves together. Hutch was still keeping his eyes shut tight. His eyes had always been more sensitive to wind and sun, and they were still tearing up. Starsky could see where his own bloody hands had left prints on what was left of Hutch's shirt. They both looked like they'd had a run-in with an enormous cheese grater. Starsky could help but try to check out the gash on Hutch's forehead.

"Good thing you didn't throw away the painkillers," Hutch wheezed, managing to open a single eye at his not-amused partner.

Not funny.

No matter how bad off they were, Starsky didn't think he'd ever be able to joke about it. He was about ready to say so, but something in Hutch's expression changed his mind. His partner looked so relieved, almost happy, even though his face was a bloody mess. Starsky couldn't remember the last time he saw him like that. He couldn't help it. Leaning over, Starsky hugged him hard, noting that Hutch smelled like a strange combination of cigarette smoke, dirt, and toothpaste.

"Didya bring back my toothbrush?" Starsky asked, after he finally let him go.

Hutch let go with a snort of a laugh that turned into a cough and then wouldn't let up at all. Coughing like that made his stomach cramp up again, and Starsky tried scrounging in the back seat to try and find something to settle it down. He couldn't find any medicine, but by the time he gave up looking, Hutch was dozing off anyways. Starsky pushed the bench seat back, so they'd be more comfortable waiting out the storm. He was almost glad he'd given Hutch the Benadryl and Valium before the storm hit. He needed sleep to get better.

Grabbing a couple pillows from the back seat, Starsky tucked one behind his partner's head and kept the other for himself. Not for the first time, he was glad he'd bought so many for the trip. He was kind of glad to sneak in a nap.

And while they slept, the demon wind cut around the Torino, ruthless like water seeking its way.


The flood came after the sandstorm. Starsky said the locusts were bound to show up next. Hutch thought that was funny and laughed.

They really hadn't seen it coming. In fact, they barely made it out in time. Once the sandstorm had finally subsided, they'd just gotten started helping each other clean up, bandaging the cuts and scrapes that were still bleeding. Hutch had been feeling pretty proud of himself, rescuing Starsky in the middle of the sandstorm like that.

So he'd said, "Hey, we did a pretty good job out there, Starsk. Maybe, we're cut out for desert living after all!"

That's when Starsky pointed out the shadows moving on the sand. There were only a few clouds churning overhead, turning the sky interesting shades of black and purple. It was much more interesting than the weather they got in LA, so they climbed onto the roof of the poor, battered Torino to be able to see it better. But then lightning cracked, thunder rolled, and a cloudburst broke open over the mountains and across the plains. They watched it for a while, still sort of fascinated by its intensity, until Starsky noted that it seemed to be coming their way. Then, Hutch pointed out the water rushing through a canyon. He hadn't thought about it before, but Hutch suddenly realized that they were parked in a wash. Starsky must have chosen it because it was an easy place to park, not having as much scrub as other spots. It was hard to tell distances in the desert, but he was pretty sure that the water was moving awfully fast, and it was coming their way.

"Starsk," he croaked out of his sand-scraped throat, sliding quickly off the roof. "Get us out of here!"

A flash flood was fast, but so was Starsky. Once he slammed the pedal to the floor, the Torino squealed off the road and up onto higher ground. The impeccable paintjob might have been sandblasted into oblivion, but the rest of the car was still holding its own. Hutch held his breath until they made it to the rim of the arroyo, but Starsky braked skillfully, and the Torino slid to a stop, dust rising all round.

"End of the road," Starsky panted.

They heard the water's power before they saw it. The flood pummeled its way through the arroyo. There was no way they would have survived. The water was sucking down everything, debris and boulders alike, splintering everything in its path. They gaped at the sheer spectacle of it. Hutch could smell the flood through the closed windows of the car. Dank and dusty all at once, it was the overwhelming smell of life and death caught up in the boiling water.

They waited tensely as it passed, like the flood was going to stalk them uphill. But Starsky had found them a safe haven. Hutch could feel himself shaking, but then Starsky's hand was on his shoulder, and he forced himself to calm down. They nodded at each other and silently got out of the car, climbing back onto the roof. It felt kind of anticlimactic to just sit there and watch it, but there wasn't much else they could do.

Starsky's car had taken the brunt of the sandstorm. It was in even worse shape than the two of them. For some reason, Hutch had to look away, as his partner stroked the exposed metal of his car like it was a beloved pet about to be put down. The sand had destroyed much of the red paint, leaving streaks behind of its former glory.

"Hell, it's never gonna be the same. Look -- there's pits and dents all over it. A new paint job wouldn't even take."

"Starsk, the car saved us, you know?"

"Yeah. I know. But that doesn't make it go down easy."

But Hutch knew it wasn't just the car that had saved them. He couldn't stop looking down at the flood. Red and thick with sediment, the water was the color of congealed blood. They'd come so close to being caught up in it.

Of all the possible deaths Hutch had ever considered, drowning in the desert wasn't one of them.

Resting his head on his knees, Hutch was suddenly worn out beyond all understanding. Then he felt a warm hand against his shoulder. He tilted his head toward his partner. Starsky was watching over him. Poor worried Starsky. Hutch wondered how long it would be before his partner could ease up again.

Hutch didn't pull away. "What's wrong, Starsk?"

To his surprise, Starsky's frown deepened.

"How come you don't know what I'm thinking?" Starsky demanded, sounding almost put out. "Why do you even have to ask me what's wrong? You always just knew before."

That struck Hutch as being kind of funny, and he started to laugh, which made Starsky's frown grow even deeper. The truth was that he did know what Starsky was thinking. Of all the things for Starsky to be bothered about, the idea that Hutch couldn't read his mind shouldn't really be at the top of his list. But it had been so long since he'd thought anything was funny that he couldn't get his laughter to stop, once he'd begun...

"Terrific," Starsky muttered, shaking his head. "On top of everything else, now I gotta have to have you committed to Cabrillo after all. They say that the desert makes crazy men go right over the edge..."

Starsky was baiting him for sure. There was poorly concealed smile underneath the crankiness. Starsky always loved it when Hutch got goofy like that and usually tried to spur it along.

If Starsky was trying to get him to laugh even harder, it worked. Hutch had tears coming out of his eyes... laughing so hard he almost slid off the edge of the car roof, before Starsky hauled him back towards the center. He was even hiccupping, the way he always got when he was blitzed. It was contagious. It didn't take long before Starsky was laughing as hard as Hutch. Every time one would get it under control, the other would start up, sending them both off once again.

They laughed for a long time. It felt good. Hutch wished Starsky'd saved a couple beers to wash the moment down. Then they sat quietly for a while, watching the flood rage on.

They'd always been comfortable being quiet with each other. But Hutch could feel the start of the familiar cravings coming back. During the storm and the flood, he hadn't felt them at all. He'd almost welcomed the danger. Made it feel like himself again, facing life and death and just dealing with it. It had been the part of his life as a cop that he loved the most, the way Starsky trusted him to watch his back. The way they did that for each other. But the laughter reminded him of what he'd lost.

Starsky was the one who break the long silence. "Tell me something, Hutch. Was it 'cause of me? Was it something I did?"

Startled, Hutch stared at his friend. "God, no. Why would you even ask that?"

Starsky wouldn't look at him. Rubbed a weary hand over his eyes. "When I knew for sure that you were using, I... I did some digging. Didn't tell anybody but Huggy--"

"And Doctor Bobby," Hutch added.

"And Doctor Bobby. I went through all the prescriptions I could find in your apartment, and I think I found the first one from the ER at Metro. You went there without me."

It was an accusation. Hutch nodded solemnly, accepting it as that.

"I hurt my back."

"In that drug bust?" Starsky seemed to be waiting for another nod before he continued. "You should've told me. I don't understand why you didn't. I knew you were hurting, and we don't keep that sort of thing from each other. I'd have taken you to the ER. Made sure they took care of you with something you could handle. Why didn't you let me, Hutch?"

Hutch stared at his friend, not understanding. "Let you?"

"If you were wanting that stuff, I'd have helped you out of it. Like I did before."

Hutch's protest came out as a sob. "God, Starsky, I didn't go to the ER looking for drugs. I was trying to help you. That sounds idiotic now, but you'd come so far... after Marcus... and you were just getting better again. I knew if I told you... I knew you'd help me. That's the problem. I just wanted to be there for you. Marcus called me 'the white knight.' Pretty damn ironic that's how I proved him to be a fraud."

"Bastard."

"I'm sorry."

"I'm not talking about you, Hutch. I'm talking about Marcus. That son of a bitch gets to add another victim to his tally."

"Marcus didn't do this to me," Hutch said. "I managed this one all by myself. Don't make me into a victim, Starsk."

Starsky shot back, "Then don't make me into one."

"Fine."

"Fine."

"Okay then."

"Well, I guess that's a start," Starsky said, absent-mindedly rubbing at the edge of some flaking paint.

But Hutch wasn't done. "You don't have to forgive me, Starsk. I wouldn't blame you if you didn't."

Starsky nudged him with a sharp elbow to the ribs. "You think you're the only one who's ever screwed up? Get over yourself, buddy."

"Pretty big screw up, Starsk."

"You kicked it."

"I fell."

"Fallen world, Hutch. Get used to it."

"I'm supposed to be one of the good guys."

"You are. I don't know anyone better than you, Hutch."

Hutch could hardly hold up his head under the onslaught of that kind of faith. Amazing how he could feel redeemed and damned and forgiven -- all in the same grin.

"It's always gonna be a part of me. The addiction."

"Maybe. But it's not you."

"I can hear its voice, Starsk."

"Whose voice?"

"The addiction. It... it sings to me at night."

"That's kinda crazy talk, Hutch."

"I know it is. Maybe I am crazy."

Starsky slung an easy arm around his partner's shoulders.

"Nah," he said. "You're just kinda sad. That'll go away too. You just gotta deal with it, as it comes. Don't think too much ahead. Hour by hour, pal."

Hutch didn't know if he could believe that, but he wanted to. And that was more than he'd had to hope for, in an awfully long time. There was still another question that had to be asked. As far as Hutch was concerned, it was "the question." Up until then, he wasn't sure he'd have the guts to ask it.

"Will you ever be able to trust me? How can you be my partner again, knowing what I'm capable of? Knowing what I've done..."

Like it was the most obvious thing in the world, Starsky answered, "A man's worth more than the worst he's done, Hutch."

It was too much grace all at once. Hutch felt himself starting to dig in. Wanted to resist absolution he'd done nothing to deserve. But Starsky was staring at him so devoutly, wanting so badly for him to claim that forgiveness. Could the answer be so simple? Hutch licked his lips and tasted salt.

A man's worth more than the worst he's done.

And then Hutch understood what he'd have to let go. He'd never be the white knight again. All his efforts to fit into that role had been an epic failure. Maybe, he'd never been that person in the first place. One way or another, Hutch understood that Starsky wanted more for him than that. And for the first time in a long time, Hutch wanted more for himself.

But Hutch, being Hutch, couldn't just leave it at that. He had to test a truth by saying it out loud.

"Not exactly the white knight, am I?"

"You don't need to be." Starsky grinned. "You got me."

Hutch smiled and shook his head. "It still hurts."

"I know it, pal."

"Will it always?"

"Maybe."

Hutch looked at him, a little shocked, even though he knew he shouldn't be. Starsky'd always been a straight shooter.

Starsky continued sadly, "Everything I learned about addiction says you might always want it, but not always this bad. It's kinda the price you pay for playing in the first place."

Hutch felt his eyes filling up, and he rubbed at them like it would make a difference. He was so tired. As far as he could see, his future stretched out with eternal, aching longing. How would he be able to handle a lifetime of cravings, when a single day was so damned hard?

"Don't worry," Starsky said, punching him in the shoulder. "It's like I keep telling you. You got me, remember? Forever won't be so bad."

Then Hutch laughed again. Damn it, Starsky was still able to read his mind.

"Well, when you put it that way..."

"Hey Blintz, I got something else I need to tell ya."

Hutch looked up to see a dead serious expression on his friend's face, despite the deceptively offhand statement.

"Go ahead. You can say it."

Starsky took a deep breath and plunged forward. "You can't ever do this again, Hutch. Not ever. You can swear at me and hate me. You can kick my ass if you want to. But you can't ever take that stuff again. It's poison to you."

"I know it is, Starsk."

"It's not only 'cause of Forest, and what he did to you -- you chose this, Hutch."

"I know that, Starsky." Hutch felt the truth of that. If there was anything he knew for sure, it was that it had been his own choice that had sent him down this road. "I promise. I won't... I won't go it alone."

"Okay then."

Hutch nodded, and Starsky moved closer until Hutch felt their shoulders touch. Enough said, even though really, they were just getting started.

It would be dark soon. The sandstorm had left behind an impressive sunset. A violent red sun hung in a lavender sky.

After it had almost set, Hutch said quietly, "I don't know if I can go back again, Starsk. Don't know if I can be a cop again. The pills made it easier... I just don't know if I've got it in me."

"We don't have to decide now. We got time."

"How much time did Dobey give us?"

"Well, not much, seeing as I... didn't exactly ask him for any."

"You didn't tell him we were leaving?"

"Nope."

"Damn, Starsk. You might not have much left to go back to."

"Dummy! I keep tellin' you. I got you back. What else do I need?"

Starsky cuffed his partner on the back of the head as he said it. Hutch ducked like a kid and smiled.

"Not much of a bargain. For better or worse, I guess. Well, all right then, what's up next, deep thinker?"

"Dunno," Starsky said. "But I got a map in the car. Want me to get it while there's still some light?"

"No... no maps," Hutch said, stretching out on his back, pillowing his head in his hands. "I'm not ready to think that far ahead. Couldn't we keep going for a while? See where we end up... until we figure things out."

"Fine by me, partner. The car's still the same on the inside, even though it doesn't look like much."

Agreeably, Starsky stretched out beside his partner, wadding up his towel for a pillow. Together, they watched the desert sky bloom into night colors. They stayed that way until the stars were the only thing that marked the difference between the dark of the desert and the darkness of the sky. The moon was still rising and hadn't come into its own light. Hutch could hear the torrent below them, which sounded out of place next to the familiar sound of his best friend falling asleep.

That was when Hutch realized that it had been at least an hour since he'd thought about taking a pill, something he'd have thought impossible earlier that day. He was almost ready to wake his partner and tell him, when Starsky mumbled something incoherent in his sleep and started to roll over, dangerously close to the edge. But Hutch latched onto his arm just in time, and Starsky turned back instead, falling back into a comfortable sleep.

His chance to be a hero... there were at least some things he was still good for. Not letting go of Starsky, he decided to stay up a little longer. They'd be sleeping underneath the stars, and Hutch knew he really go and get their sleeping bags ready. But Hutch wanted to hold onto the moment as long as he could.

It had been the best day he could remember having in a long time. He had no idea what would happen next. There was a lot he'd forgotten, but the known world was calm and wide and untouched, and Starsky was there.

Hutch hadn't remembered that happiness felt like this.

That life could be this good...

The End

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