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Drinking a cup of coffee early one May morning, Ken Hutchinson thought about what he and his partner, David Starsky, planned to do as soon as they got to the precinct. What kind of reaction would they get, he wondered. Would everyone think they were crazy? Crazier than usual? Worst of all, what would Captain Dobey say?

When he heard the Torino growl to the curb in front of his building, and his partner's footsteps on the stairs, he finished his coffee and put those misgivings aside. He was determined not to rain on Starsky's parade. Exactly the opposite, in fact. In a few minutes, he intended to be decorating the float.

Starsky let himself in. "Hey, partner! Come on, we're gonna be late. Let's go. Let's go!" He sounded about twelve years old.

Hutch turned the coffee pot off and walked out of the kitchen. Handing Starsky a mug as he passed, he went toward the closet. "We're not late, Starsk. It's barely six o'clock. We have plenty of time."

He was dressed in faded blue jeans and a bright blue long-sleeved shirt over a gold t-shirt. Although the subject of wardrobe for the morning's adventure hadn't come up in the strategy sessions with his partner, Hutch had searched his memory, and his closets. As it turned out, nothing had been thrown away, even though he'd been sorely tempted. And so, already wearing his holstered weapon, all he lacked was an outer garment. He stopped, his hand on the closet door knob, and looked at Starsky. "You sure about this?"

"Yeah, ‘course I'm sure!" Starsky took a sip of the hot liquid and spilled a few drops on his dark blue windbreaker. He brushed them off, checking to make sure he hadn't gotten any on his reasonably new jeans. Straightening up he grinned at Hutch. "We hadn't found the thing this time last year. Don't wanna wait another whole year." He gulped a swallow of coffee, practically bouncing on the balls of his feet.

"Okay. Just checking." Hutch opened the door to the closet, pulled out and put on his white hip-length cloth coat. His ensemble was now complete.

Starsky stood still. "Hutch... you haven't worn those clothes since..."

Hutch took the mug from Starsky's hand and set it on the hall table. He reached back into the closet and brought out a piece of worn, scuffed, cracked brown leather. "Since the day you last wore this."

Starsky stared, open-mouthed. He wasn't bouncing any more. He stood, flat footed, speechless, looking at the object in Hutch's hands. "You never said anything. And I didn't ask." His eyes rose to Hutch's and his gaze betrayed naked vulnerability. "I just figured they had to cut it off me."

"They did. Sort of." Hutch handed him the jacket.

Starsky took it reverently, then raised it to his face and inhaled deeply. He looked at Hutch, surprised. "Smells different."

"I'm not surprised." Hutch gently pushed Starsky toward the couch. "Go. Sit for a minute. I want to tell you everything." He picked up Starsky's coffee cup and headed to the kitchen.

"Yeah, okay." Starsky, definitely distractedly, sat in the middle of the sofa.

Hutch refilled his own mug and topped of his partner's from the still-warm pot. He went out and sat down next to Starsky who was staring at the bundle in his lap. Hutch handed him the cup as Starsky looked up at him, his eyes filled with questions.

"In the ambulance," Hutch began, "they had to cut the right sleeve to the shoulder, along with your shirt. For the IV."

Starsky nodded. "Sure, makes sense."

"But when we got to the hospital, on the way to the Emergency Room, I tried to explain to the interns and nurses how much the jacket meant to you. I begged them to peel the rest of it off you, if they could."

Starsky shook his head in amazement. "And they did?"

"They know us, Starsk. Every person in that ER was someone who'd helped us before. They had to cut the right front and sleeve off, but that made it fairly easy to remove the rest without any more harm to either of you."

Starsky's gaze dropped to the jacket again. He picked it up in his right arm and held it away from his left as he drank some coffee. "Don't wanna spill coffee on it."

"Dobey had one of the nurses put it in a bag. He kept it in the situation room there. Until we knew you were going to live."

Hutch could see Starsky trying to put events he didn't remember in order, and digest the new information. When he looked up again his eyes still held uncertainty. "How did you get the blood out?"

"I didn't."

"Who did?" Starsky turned the treasured item over, fingering the three holes in the back.

"Leather Crafters, on Fulton."

"Have they had it all this time?" Starsky asked.

"Almost. I got it back last month."

Starsky looked up at him, a small grin crinkling the corner of his mouth. "You can really keep a secret, pal."

Hutch took a deep, relieved breath. He hadn't been sure Starsky wouldn't be pissed at him for holding it back so long. "Since we were already planning this morning's shenanigans, I thought I'd save it ‘til now. Hopefully make today even more special."

"Well, you managed to do that alright." Starsky's heart was in his eyes. "This is... Perfect."

"The people at Leather Crafters had to unstitch every seam so they could clean the individual pieces. Those pesky little sewing machine needle holes, and the thread, can retain a lot of blood."

"They took it apart?"

"They didn't have a choice. Not only for cleaning, but because they had to replace the damaged parts."

Starsky's eyes widened. "‘Replace?'"

"The one sleeve was slit to the shoulder, and the right front was too badly torn up to be salvaged." Hutch had to take a deep breath before he could go on, seeing those few moments again in his mind. "That side took two exit wounds. Dickson, in Forensics, says you were probably hunched because the left side escaped and the third bullet went through the middle."

"I don't remember."

"I'm glad."

Starsky just looked at him, his eyes almost vacant now, and shadowed.

"Anyway..." Hutch went on quickly; he hadn't meant to lead Starsky down that terrible path. He put more cheer in his voice and on his face. "Al Perkins, the owner of Leather Crafters, told me he couldn't save the sleeve or right side. So he called the manufacturer and sent them the damaged panel. They told him how many had been made in that exact size and style, with that exact lining."

Starsky took a swallow of coffee, stroking the leather again. "They went to a lot of trouble, didn't they?"

Hutch smiled fondly at his partner, who never realized his worth to other people. "They wanted to. They'd followed the story in the papers and, when I took the jacket to them, Mr. Perkins said he felt like they'd be helping you get back on your feet. It just took a lot longer than he figured."

Starsky drank more coffee and cradled the leather.

"Sales outlets were contacted and lists of buyers sent back. To make a very long story a bit shorter, Mr. Perkins finally found the daughter of a guy who'd died recently. Her father had told her he bought his jacket in 1960."

"I bought mine five years later," Starsky said. "From a thrift shop."

"The daughter was more than happy to send Al her father's coat."

"That was nice of her." Starsky was still running his hands over every inch, shaking his head. Finding something he didn't expect, he held the thing up and studied the inside of the back. "Look at what they did with the lining!" Starsky peered closely at the three punctures. "They sewed all the way around each one of these."

"They did that before they put it all back together. It's buttonhole stitch. So the fabric won't fray."

"Geez! This musta cost you a fortune." Starsky looked at Hutch with such child-like gratitude, Hutch almost blushed.

"They wouldn't take a penny. Said they were proud to work on it for you." He ducked his head a little. "I kinda promised them you'd come by and model it so they can take a picture and hang it on their wall."

"We'll go right after work!" He stroked the leather again, slowly, turning solemn. "I... uh... I don't know what to say, Hutch."

"Then don't say anything. Here..." He took Starsky's coffee cup and put it, along with his own, on the table. Standing up, he lifted the jacket from Starsky's hands and held it out, ready to be donned. "Allow me."

Starsky stood up, shed the windbreaker, turned his back and slipped his arms into the familiar leather. He rubbed the sleeves as he hugged the creaking comfort.

Hutch turned toward the front door but was stopped by Starsky's hand on his arm. He turned back.

"Thanks, Hutch." Starsky had a look in his eyes Hutch couldn't quite fathom. Then his partner's face and eyes lit up with pure delight. "This is so incredibly cool, I can't believe it!" He threw his arms around Hutch and hugged him, fiercely.

Hutch returned the hug, closing his eyes against the onslaught of tears. He listened to the leather, whose ‘voice' he hadn't heard in years. How I love having my arms around this man, he realized. "You're more than welcome, Starsk." He broke the embrace and smiled at his best friend. "Now let's go give those turkey's something to remember."

"You got it, partner." Starsky put his arm around Hutch's shoulders. Hutch switched the lights off and locked the front door behind them.

*******

As Starsky pulled the Torino into the police garage, Hutch checked his watch; they had plenty of time. The night shift was about to clock out and the day shift would be arriving.

Hutch opened the glass door and held it as Starsky went past him into the tiny lobby. Hutch put his hand lightly on his partner's back as he followed him inside.

Max Abernathy and Bob Boswell, graveyard shift detectives, were on their way out.

"Hey guys!" Starsky greeted them brightly. "Wanna help us with a little celebration?"

"Whaddya got in mind, Starsky?" Abernathy, the hardened, twenty-year veteran, growled.

"Come with us, and you'll see, Max." Hutch didn't want to give anything away yet.

Both senior detectives appeared reluctant and suspicious.

"Oh, come on, Abernathy," Hutch urged. "Starsky and I'll do the heavy lifting. We just need a little help with the... accessories." He smiled at the officers accumulating around the blocked doorway.

"Sure," Boswell decided. "What the hell. I got nothin' t' go home for."

Hutch led the way toward the stairwell.

"What's goin' on?" a uniformed officer asked.

"Beats me." Abernathy sounded interested despite himself. "Starsky and Hutchinson are talkin' about some sort o' celebration."

"Count me in!" The officer motioned for his partner to join him.

Hutch noticed others tack onto the procession as they made their way down the stairway. Stan Devers and Jerry Smith, the youngest detectives in the division were among them. Hutch thought they must have something going if the Hot Shots were coming along.

"What's this all about," Devers asked.

"You'll see." Starsky's voice sounded smug as Hutch opened the door for him at the bottom of the stairs.

"Whacha bein' so secretive about?" Boswell followed Starsky and Hutch out into the basement corridor.

"Patience, Bob," the normally impatient Starsky suggested. "All will be revealed."

Halfway down the hall, Hutch brought the group to a stop. He opened an unlocked door that had the number B-11 on it, reached inside and flicked on the light. He stepped back so that the others could see into the storage room. A stack of drop cloths was in a corner and a ping pong table was pushed against the wall. Paddles and balls were in a small box.

"Just help us get this stuff upstairs, guys," Hutch said. "Then you can go on home."

"And miss the fun?" Boswell had a gleam in his usually disinterested eyes. "Not on your life, Hutchinson!"

A few of the guys began picking up drop cloths. Starsky and Hutch reached for the ping pong table but Smith and Devers shouldered them aside.

"You get the light weight stuff, Gramps." Devers handed him the paddles. "Let us bright shields carry the heavy."

Hutch glanced at his partner to see how he was going to react to the blatant put down. Instead of the anger he expected, he saw such a happy expression on Starsky's face it lit up his heart.

Starsky put both paddle-filled hands up in a ‘it's all yours' gesture. "Far be it from me to impinge on your pleasure, Devers. Be our guests."

Hutch and Starsky stood side by side as the two youngsters hoisted the table and other volunteers gathered the rest of the cloths. Hutch bowed his partner out of the room and put his arm back around the leather-clad shoulders. They followed the caravan upstairs.

Word must have filtered through the station because the squad room was a small crowd scene by the time Devers and Smith pushed through the doors. Starsky and Hutch walked in behind everyone and stood to the side, watching. Willing hands shoved desks and chairs to the walls and drop cloths were spread over everything. No one needed directions, most had been there on the morning being remembered. Others had undoubtedly heard the story and knew what to do. The table was set up in the middle of the open space.

Starsky handed the paddles to Hutch. He took his jacket off and hung it on the coat tree just inside the double doors. "I know I was wearing it that morning but I don't want anybody to bump into me and spill coffee on it." His gratitude and warm pleasure washed over Hutch.

Hutch handed the paddles back and shed his cloth coat onto an adjacent peg. "Good idea, Starsk." He shrugged. "And I wasn't wearing mine."

Starsky handed one of the paddles to Hutch and they moved to opposite ends of the battle zone.

"What're you playing for this time?" Devers asked Starsky, as he gave Hutch the small white ball.

"Haven't decided yet." Starsky's face was split in such a wide grin, Hutch thought it just might break.

Hutch served, gently, and Starsky returned it. The game was on.

When he thought about it later, Hutch figured it must have been that, as officers from both shifts were told about the outrageous goings on, or heard the telltale click-click, they gravitated to the squad room. Because, as the score climbed above the mid-point, Hutch looked up when Starsky lunged away from the table to nab the errant ball. Stunned, he saw dozens of cops packed into the room. More were staring in through the windows from the hallway. He noticed them looking at the calendar, and each other, before shaking their heads. He knew what they were probably thinking: two years to the day. He shrugged the thought off and chuckled.

"Quit laughing, Hutch!" Starsky was snickering himself. "You're making me loose track. What's the score?"

"Fifteen, fourteen, Starsk. Your favor."

"Naturally."

There was no killer instinct behind the word though, nor the style of play. Starsky was clearly having too much fun! And it made Hutch's spirit soar. The past twenty four months had been such a combination of lows and highs that, to be able to reenact that dread morning's game, with nothing more on their minds than making everyone in the precinct scratch their heads in wonder, was turning out to be... well, a wonder.

"I'm playing the winner," Babcock shouted.

"I'm next, then," said Simmons.

"Winner's gonna have to play all of us, I guess," Devers added.

Hutch muffed an easy return stroke and laughed. "I can't concentrate, Starsk. You want to finish the game with Babcock?"

"Naw." Starsky handed his paddle to Simmons. "I'll sit the rest out, too."

Someone had made a fresh pot of coffee and Starsky poured a cup for Hutch and one for himself. Putting the pot back on the machine, Starsky's eyes found Hutch's and locked on.

Hutch tapped the edge of his mug against his partner's, holding the gaze. "Glad you discovered that storage room, pal."

"You thought of doing the reenactment though, Hutch."

"It was mutual as I recall. We looked at each other and knew."

"Kinda like now."

"Yeah," Hutch agreed, softly. Like now. We read each other's soul-deep thoughts. Whether it's in a hospital room with long-faced Dr. Franklin hovering, or on a rocky hillside with you lifting my head, safe in your strong hands. On a deserted beach where no one could have heard me if I'd said the words, or here in the crowded squad room where everyone would. I love you, Starsk. I'll never be able to say it out loud so I do the only thing I can. I clothe you in your cherished leather, and hope you know.

Wagner, a detective from Vice sidled up to them, shattering the moment. "How's the case goin', Hutch?" He didn't specify the case in question.

"It's going, Roger," Hutch muttered, sorry to have his ‘conversation' with Starsky interrupted.

"Couldn't find a judge." Starsky, hiding irritation at being interrupted, looked away from Hutch and watched the game. "Two resigned, one recused himself after stalling for months. Another's under investigation for close ties to Gunther's organization."

"They think they've finally found one though," Hutch said. "Judge Marshfield. Brought her down from Fresno. She's sifting through the dozens of motions Gunther's jailhouse lawyer keeps filing."

"It's junk, of course." Starsky shrugged. "But it takes up time." His voice, when he looked at Hutch but spoke to Wagner, was full of confidence. "We'll get him, Rog. Don't you worry."

"I'm not worried, Starsky." Wagner sounded exactly that. "I just think you guys are nuts to thumb your noses at the fates this way."

"We're not thumbin' our noses at anybody, Rog. We're making a statement," Starsky said, with conviction. "They can kill us, but they can't eat us." He cocked an eyebrow at Wagner. "It's against the Geneva Convention."

"He read that," Hutch told the dubious detective. "Audie Murphy's ‘To Hell and Back,' I think."

Shaking his head, Wagner turned away.

Hutch saw Abernathy and Boswell heading toward the doors. They both hesitated at the coat tree, staring at the brown leather. Abernathy looked back at Hutch, nodded and sent him a silent two-fingered salute. Hutch nodded in reply. Max Abernathy was stingy with his accolades and Hutch knew he'd been gifted with one.

Staring pensively after the departed veterans, Hutch noticed that others walked past the coat rack, almost in procession. When they did, each one reached out and stroked, or patted, or simply laid a hand on the worn leather. The holes in the back were touched gently. It was as if each person hoped at least a little of Starsky's luck would transfer to them from the contact.

Dobey appeared in the squad room doors and all activity ceased, no one knowing how the captain would react. Surprisingly, he waved his hand for the game to continue and disappeared into his office.

Moments later he returned, his sport coat and tie off and his shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbows. He shouldered his way to the table and appropriated the paddle from the closest player. "New game!" He hit the small white ball in a savage ace.

A phone began to ring, somewhere under the drop cloths. Simmons found the correct instrument and answered. He listened for a minute. "Starsky!"

"What?" Starsky shouted back, pouring himself a fresh cup of coffee.

Simmons made his way through the crowd of spectators as Dobey scored another point against the hapless Jerry Smith. "Huggy Bear says you and Hutch need to get down to his place toot sweet!"

Starsky tried to smother a laugh. "‘Toot sweet'? Is that what he said? Really?"

"As I live and breath." Simmons held his right hand up in the Boy Scout salute. "He's got someone there who can tell you and Hutch about the Gelson Supermarket robbery and murder last week."

Hutch put his coffee cup down and turned toward the door, then stopped. Starsky nearly bumped into him. "We can't leave this mess, Starsk."

"Sure you can," Devers said. "Won't take us any time at all to put this place back in shape." He glanced toward the table where Dobey was about to wipe the floor with Smith before he looked back at Starsky and Hutch. "Can't tell you guys what this morning has meant to me and my partner. You were legends when Jerry and I showed up in the Ninth." He held out his hand. Starsky shook it firmly, then Hutch. "Now, you're real."

"Go on, get outta here." Simmons sounded almost embarrassed. "We'll take care of things."

"Don't lose that table," Starsky warned.

"Don't worry, Starsky," Babcock said. "We'll put everything back exactly where you found it."

"Thanks, fellas," Hutch added, with feeling.

As Hutch and his partner made their way past the game, Dobey paused before his next serve, looking serious. "Can all of us mark this on our calendars for next year?"

"You bet, Cap'n." Starsky was bouncing on his toes again. "Every year from now on, too! We'll call it the ‘Screw Gunther Ping Pong Challenge.'"

Hutch smiled his thanks at Dobey and received an understanding nod.

At the coat tree, Hutch held the leather jacket for Starsky again. When his partner slipped it on, Hutch spread his large hand over the holes.

Starsky shivered and leaned back against the light pressure.

Hutch gently pushed him forward and Starsky opened the squad room door. He held it as Hutch put his cloth coat on and went out into the hall. Headed toward the elevators, Starsky draped his arm around Hutch's shoulders who placed his own around Starsky's. The old scuffed brown leather creaked and crackled softly with an almost human voice. Hutch could have sworn he heard the word, ‘mine.'

END