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Written: 2000

First published in "Of Dreams & Schemes 22" (2007)

 

     “Are you sure you’re ready for this?” Hutch didn’t even try to keep the concern from his voice. Starsky knew him too well for that to work.

     “Would you quit askin’ me that?!”

     Hutch also knew his partner. It wasn’t normal exasperation that colored Starsky’s tone; it was the kind that came from a person so rubbed raw that everything that touched him hurt. Including his friend’s worry.

     By all rights, he knew Starsky should have been home or, at the most, at his desk, working up to facing the world again a little bit at a time, not out running down leads on a new drug lab. Yet there they were, ready or not. Starsky had all but insisted he was up to a street assignment, and ultimately Dobey had had no good reason for refusing him one.

     Hutch did. It was only a few days after their hellish undercover assignment at Cabrillo Asylum, an assignment in which Starsky had been repeatedly drugged and restrained, and then had needed to go rescue his dosed partner. Starsky was still getting over the nightmares from that one. Getting back on the streets was his effort to feel in control again, but Hutch couldn’t shake the feeling that it was too soon. Especially on a narcotics case. He himself remembered little of his own drugging at Cabrillo, for which Hutch was profoundly grateful, but for Starsky it had been one long, vivid ordeal.

     No, this was hardly what Hutch wanted. But who could stop a stubbornly determined Starsky?

     “You wanna take the back?” he offered instead, nodding toward the side of the building. “I’ll try the front.”

     A terse nod was his partner’s only answer, and Hutch repressed a frown as he watched Starsky slip around the corner.

     Really, chances were the lead was nothing, just like several others they’d tracked down. Even if a lab had existed there once, most of them were peripatetic, never in one place long. It was fairly safe legwork, which suited Hutch just fine. But he couldn’t help but worry.

     The building had been a factory once, the fat chimneys a testament to its past. Plastic sheeting and rotting boards covered most of the high windows now. Not much of a factory left, but an ideal site for an illegal lab, except that there was no sign of life in the old building. The breeze produced the only movement, flapping tatters of the thin plastic.

     There weren’t any ground floor windows to peer in, so Hutch tried the door. Solid wood, it didn’t budge. That was no surprise; a lot of the old factories had been closed down with all the machinery still inside and were locked up to keep looters out, then gradually forgotten. Life moved on in the big city.

     A second, squat door was near the right corner of the building, perhaps an employees’ entrance. It made sense, as the larger door was big enough to accommodate a small truck had probably been used for loading and unloading. Hutch headed for the smaller one instead, tugging it experimentally. It gave.

     Faintly surprised, he opened it just far enough to slip inside, pulling his gun as he did. Still no real reason for alarm, but they had to be careful in their line of work. Hutch paused just inside the building, letting his eyes adjust to the dim light that filtered in from ahead and listening for any sign of habitation. The light revealed that he was standing at the head of a short, enclosed hallway that afforded him little view. But as for sounds, there was something...

     Silently, he crept forward, pausing at each gaping doorway he passed to peer into the rooms. Small offices each, empty except for discarded furniture and heavy with dust. The noise grew more distinct as he progressed, sounding an awful lot like voices but still too remote to distinguish. Hutch reached the bend in the hallway and then, ever so carefully, looked around it.

     Straight into a gun barrel.

 

     The third of the doors that lined the back was unlocked, and Starsky crept inside, his gun out and ready. He’d had to wipe a sweaty palm against his jeans before he’d pulled his weapon.

     Hutch was worried about him, he knew that, and another time he might have appreciated his partner’s concern. Now it was just aggravating. Why should an undercover case be slowing him down days later, one in which he hadn’t even been injured? If anything, Hutch was the one who should have been off duty still, with his slower recovery from the experimental drug he’d been dosed with. Surely he didn’t question Starsky's readiness, or his assertions that going back on the streets didn't bother him?

     Except, it did.

     Not that he couldn’t do his job; Starsky would never have endangered Hutch like that. But the lingering horror of being trapped and powerless was difficult to shake. And it brought back all sorts of unwelcome reminders of past captivity and inhumane treatment at the hands of Simon Marcus’s insane cultists, a visit to the dark side of his memory he wasn’t ready for. What his partner hadn’t seen, though, was that Starsky needed to be back on the streets, actively fighting the demons that stalked his memory, proving to himself that he was in control, after all. Even if it didn’t feel like it.

     The door led into an area separated from the main body of the factory by a long wall that stretched in front of Starsky. A glance around revealed several crumbling wooden crates piled along the wall and in the corners. It had probably been a storage area, Starsky figured, connected to the main factory floor by the large, garage-style doors that broke the wall in a few places. Far too noisy and large to open, though, the doors wouldn’t be of much help, and Starsky searched for another entrance. He began to walk along the wall and nearly reached its end before he spotted the standard-sized door half-hidden by a towering stack of crates. Gently, he tried the door knob, and when it turned in his hand, he slipped inside.

     It opened into a long, wide hallway, bordered on one side by the brick wall of the factory and on the other by a white temporary wall lined with dusty and cracked windows. Starsky instinctively crouched below them and, gun in hand, peeked out into the center of the factory.

     The sight was unmistakable. From the tables that were loaded with expensive scientific equipment, to the one that sagged under bags of pink pills, it left little doubt that their lead about the lab had been dead on, a small but apparently efficient manufacturing site. Starsky only counted three men. Two moved around the lab with unmistakable authority; they might as well have been in white coats. One stopped briefly to talk to the third man in the room, this one with a gun in a shoulder holster. Great, not even high-end dealers, which meant more brutality and less predictability. The faster they shut down the place, the better.

     Wondering if Hutch had seen the same thing, Starsky gingerly backed out of the hall and open door. The too-familiar feel of cold steel at the base of his neck stopped him dead.

     “Another one. I guess you work in pairs,” a voice said flatly behind him. “Hands where I can see them.”

     Starsky slowly obliged, his gun hanging from one finger as he raised both hands. He was immediately relieved of the Smith & Wesson, but his thoughts were elsewhere. Another one--that meant they had Hutch, too? Intact, he fervently hoped.

     “I guess you were curious about our little operation here, hmm?” The owner of the voice, who Starsky judged to be somewhere in his thirties, male and literate, gave him a quick patdown while the gun remained rock steady against his skin. “Aren’t you supposed to have a warrant or something, or are you doing this on your own?”

     “Factory’s abandoned. We don’t need a warrant,” Starsky ground out. “Guess you didn’t do your homework.”

     The gun pressed a little harder for a moment. “Unfortunately, your being here complicates things. If you disappear, eventually someone will come looking for you here. But we can’t exactly have you going back to tell any tales, can we? Thanks to your nosiness, we’re going to have to relocate now.”

     “You’re breakin’ my heart.”

     “I’m sure. Well, we’ll just have to keep you out of the way until we figure out exactly what to do with you.” Sudden humor infused his voice. “We can even provide the entertainment while you wait.”

     A shiver of panic traced through Starsky. That really didn’t sound good.

     The gun nudged him, and he stumbled forward, again into the hallway. The occupants of the lab soon noticed him and stared in surprise as Starsky and his shadow reached a glass door and walked into the main body of the warehouse.

     “Where’d he come from? Why’re you bringin’ him here?” the non-scientist immediately asked, stepping toward them. “Are you nuts?” Unlike his companion, he spoke with a working class twang, but the eyes under his shaggy brown hair were just as cold and empty as the other’s voice. This was not a pair to take lightly, Starsky noted, and glanced around as subtly as he could for any reassuring sign of Hutch. There was none, and his stomach impossibly tightened even more.

     “He must be the other one’s partner,” came the answer from behind. “I was just about to take him to join his friend, but I thought maybe we could show him what we do here first. You know, a little firsthand experience.”

     The other man’s frown disappeared, curving into a frigid smile. “Sure, why not?”

     Firsthand experience. Starsky was trying desperately not to think about what that meant, but smack in the middle of a drug lab, there weren’t that many possibilities. Where was Hutch when he needed him? There was some scant comfort in his captor’s insinuation that the blond was simply being held somewhere. But that still meant he wouldn’t be rushing to the rescue.

     A hard prod sent him unexpectedly to his knees, and Starsky tried to swallow, his throat desert-dry.

     The man with the holster had disappeared from his line of sight for a moment, but now returned to stand in front of him. In his palm he held two of the pink pills.

     Oh, God.

     Starsky’s thoughts spun into desperate freefall, and he went into motion. One of his legs swung around to sweep the feet out from under the man in front of him, even as he jabbed his elbow back into the man behind him. It didn’t connect. Unbalanced, he nearly fell, and then shoes were slamming into his side and back, several hands reaching to grab him when he reeled from the blows. They restrained his arms, pinned his legs, leaving him helpless again. The gun had been removed from his neck, but with one swift move, his invisible captor moved to stand in front of him, the barrel digging into Starsky’s chest now.

     “Is that better?” Any trace of civility was gone from the snarl, and through blurred vision, Starsky could see fine features and slate-blue eyes. The man reminded him of Hutch, in fact, down to the only slightly darker blond hair, except for the angrily twisted features and malefic gaze. Hutch’s eyes had never looked like that.

     The holstered man was on his feet and pushed his way to stand in front of Starsky once more. Starsky stared at him, defiant, his lips pressed together even when the gunman grabbed a handful of his hair and jerked his head back. Without a word, the man drove a fist into Starsky’s side.

     All the breath was driven from his lungs in a whoosh, and Starsky doubled up as much as the restraining hands would allow, gasping for air.

     Immediately, something was shoved into his mouth, and too occupied with trying to draw in breath, he swallowed.

     Pills. Pink ones, no doubt.

     His vision began to clear, the wave of pain relenting and air coming a little easier now. And his world was crumbling around him.

     Starsky was roughly pulled to his feet and shoved along, toward where, he didn’t much care anymore. His eyes were tightly shut, as if that would block out the reality that was slowly dissolving inside him, soon to enter his bloodstream and steal his body and mind from him far more thoroughly than any of Cabrillo’s drugs had.

     Another turn, a few rattling sounds, and he was pushed, hard this time, sending him onto his face on the floor. He didn’t try to fight back, curling up where he lay--the real enemy was inside him now. The door banged resoundingly behind him.

     More sounds of movement. Then, “Starsky?”

     The aghast voice almost sent him into a new panic, even as it brought an automatic drenching relief. Hutch sounded fine, safe, and was there with him...and would witness whatever madness the drug they’d given Starsky would bring. He flinched away from his partner. The thought of Hutch seeing his total loss of control was almost more unbearable than what the drug itself would do.

     “What did they do to you? Starsk?”

     If Hutch had noticed his retreat, he gave no sign of it. Hands, gentle this time, were suddenly roaming his body, trying to find what was wrong. They coaxed him from his curl, carefully tugged up his shirt to find his bruises.

     “Tell me where you’re hurt, buddy,” came the soft order, then more sharply, “Starsky, don’t scare me like this.”

     Starsky shook his head, drawn back momentarily from the edge of losing it by his partner’s voiced fear. He dragged his eyes briefly up to Hutch’s face, long enough to see the deep concern there, then dropped his gaze to the wall past his partner. They seemed to be in a bare, windowless little cubicle, he saw with apathy. Not much room to get away from a madman. Starsky closed his eyes briefly.

     “Gave me some pills.”

     He could barely hear himself, but Hutch apparently heard just fine. There was a stunned silence, then, urgently, “What kind of pills?!”

     Starsky shrugged. “Looked like hallus.” It didn’t take much experience to distinguish between hallucinogens and powdered cocaine or heroin, not that it made much difference. 

     A sharp intake of breath was his partner’s only response.

     Shame set off another flare of panic in Starsky’s gut, this one refusing to abate. Hutch was horrified, too, doubtless knowing Starsky would soon lose all grasp of reality, endangering not only himself but also his partner. The ultimate loss of control. Starsky wasn’t sure he could bear it one more time, and his heart pounded at the terror that was swallowing him whole. But he couldn't turn to Hutch for sanity, not this time, not even if Hutch would have been willing to offer. Starsky couldn't risk it. With a silent groan, he pushed himself upright and shrugged off his partner’s grasp; he had to get as far away from the blond as possible, little protection as that would be.

     Hutch wasn’t going for it. The hands returned, not letting Starsky leave. One gripped his shoulder firmly, but the other rested against his cheek and the curve of his jaw. Caring had always been a stronger bond between them than any kind of force. “It’s easier with someone, remember?” Hutch said softly, knowingly. "Let me help." They were at eye-level now, and it was impossible to avoid the sympathetic gaze. Hutch was offering, and, incomprehensibly, didn't seem repelled by him at all.

     Starsky’s throat bobbed hard. He knew far too well what his partner was referring to: the two days they’d spent in Huggy’s upstairs room, trying to kick the heroin Forest had forcibly tried to addict Hutch to. Two days of Hell, made a little more bearable because at least they’d faced it together. “That was different,” he gritted. “You were sick, not trippin’.” Hutch hadn’t been himself, but at least he’d known Starsky, had been unwilling to lash out against his partner even when the hunger was at its worst. Starsky could offer no such guarantees. 

     “You have a selective memory, buddy.” Hutch’s lips almost softened into a smile. “Let me help. It’s 90-10 time, Starsk, remember?” It was an old adage between them, taking turns giving 90% when the other could only give 10.

     His hands were beginning to tingle, as were his feet, and Starsky tried to tuck them closer to himself. “I could hurt you,” he tried one last time. “I won’t...know what I’m doin’.” Dear God, he was going to suffocate.

     Hutch’s voice was calming. “Don’t worry about that--I won’t let you hurt either of us. Don't you dare shut me out now, Starsky. I won't allow that, either. We did this once, we can do it again.”

     This had to be a nightmare for Hutch, too, Starsky abruptly realized, conjuring up all sorts of dead memories for his partner. Those two days at Huggy’s had been among the worst they’d ever faced together. There was no way Starsky wouldn’t have been there for his partner through that, and Hutch was insisting on the same right.

     That was how strong they were together. That was why, God help him, he needed Hutch so much now. 

     A sudden stab of pain through his gut made him gasp, his arms going around his abdomen. Then it was gone just as quickly and Starsky sagged.

     “Easy, I've got you.” Hutch steadied him, his forehead touching Starsky’s for a moment before he started coaxing his partner to move. “Let’s get you over here by the wall, okay, Starsk?”

     Starsky let himself be pulled along, the edges of the room briefly wavering as he moved. It was starting. His throat closed at the thought. A memory flashed through his mind of being straightjacketed and gagged while they stuck a needle into him, and Starsky nearly retched, sure he was going to be sick.

     He was only half aware as Hutch eased him down against the wall, almost in the corner of the room, settling softly beside him. Then his partner’s arm came around him, drawing him closer. Starsky belatedly realized it was probably for warmth, as one chill after another wracked him.

     "I know it's not gonna be easy, but we can get through this. I'm not going anywhere, and I won't let anything happen to you, I promise. Just try to relax, ride it out. Trust me."

     Those incongruous two little words, as if Hutch could fix everything that was wrong in the world. Starsky tried to argue that this one was beyond even his partner, that things weren't that easy, but the words stuck in his throat and he was too tired to force them out.

     Hutch was still reading his mind, and he rubbed distractingly up and down Starsky's arm. "Trust me," he repeated. "I'm right here, I'll take care of you. Don't be scared."

     Yeah, right, Starsky thought miserably. Hutch might as well have told him not to breathe.

     His muscles suddenly seized up, his body stiffening for an eternal moment before the spasm faded, and he would have groaned if he'd had the air.

     Hutch's arm curled more protectively around him, now for support as well as warmth. It was an invitation he no longer had the strength to refuse. Starsky's eyes sank shut, and he dropped his head onto his partner's chest. Trust me--he did that every day, often with his life. So why was it so hard now?

     A familiar hand brushed through his curls. "That's it, buddy, don't fight it, just ride it out. You're gonna be okay. I won't let you go." 

     Starsky was counting on it. He glanced up once at Hutch, at the firm-set jaw and hard, almost angry eyes. But when they met his, they held only deep concern. Hutch’s mouth bent, that same half-smile he’d offered his partner a few weeks before when Rosey had walked out of Starsky’s life, taking his heart with her. It promised to be there during the bad as well as the good.

     Another shot of pain stole his breath, and Starsky bunched a handful of Hutch’s shirt in his hand until it passed. Hallus sometimes started like that, along with the sweat that was already beginning to soak his collar and the detachment that was creeping over him, before the real fun began.

     With a silent groan, Starsky turned his face into his partner’s jacket and braced himself for the ride.

 

     Hutch hated feeling helpless, hated it with every last fiber of his proud being. That impotence had been far worse than the pain as he’d lain trapped under his car, worse than the horrible aching withdrawals he’d gone through while in Forest’s hands.

     But it all paled in comparison to watching someone he loved suffer.

     He thought he’d experienced the worst of that watching his grandfather slip away into a slow death. Then he’d seen Starsky shot and writhing with pain, and realized he’d been quite wrong. It happened sometimes in their line of work, being forced to watch your partner suffer through a physical or emotional onslaught. And it never got easier.

     Still, with Starsky he’d learned that it helped immeasurably if they were together, and if the one of them was able to do something to ease the worst of the other’s pain. Practically, he knew borrowing another’s strength wasn’t possible, and yet he had, countless times before. Rationally, he was aware that mere physical presence shouldn’t have much effect on physiological well-being, yet it did for them, without fail. Typically, partners didn’t get as close as he and Starsky were, able to offer and accept comfort as needed, without shame, yet they had.

     Right now, he was counting on all of that to help his partner.

     The drug, whatever it was, had swept in alarmingly fast. He hadn’t wanted to restrain Starsky in any way and add to his sense of entrapment, so Hutch had opted only to sit next to him at first, close enough to intervene as needed. An arm around the brunet’s shoulders had absorbed the worst of Starsky’s tremors, as much from fear as from the drug, and shored him up when spasms of pain struck. But within minutes, Starsky had grown restless and incoherent, mumbling under his breath. When he’d begun to bat at something unseen, Hutch finally slid into the corner and manhandled Starsky to sit sideways in front of him, between Hutch’s bent legs. Then he wrapped his arms around his partner and got ready to wait out the ordeal.  

     He knew all the physical symptoms of psychedelics, checking them off as they manifested. Starsky’s hair and shirt were already saturated with sweat, even as his body temperature climbed and he shook with chills. Hutch would have given anything for a blanket but contented himself with draping his jacket around his partner, for all the good it did. Starsky’s eyes, dilated nearly to black, stared unseeingly at and past him, unaware of any of Hutch’s efforts to make him more comfortable. His jerky, uncoordinated movements were reactions to sights only he could see.

     Which was just one part of a whole lineup of psychological symptoms that Hutch was less certain of. He knew the typical ones: panic; paranoia; visual hallucinations; loss of sense of reality, time, and self; fluctuating attention and moods and emotional responses; illogical thought and impaired judgment. But even those changed depending on the type of hallus, and from what he’d gotten out of Starsky, his partner had been dosed with some new hybrid altogether. There was no telling what it would do or how long its effects would last.

     And so he held on as Starsky twitched and moaned in his arms, hoping his presence would at least provide some comfort, if only to keep his partner from being alone.

     Starsky groaned, shaking his head. “I don’...don’ want...Hutch?”

     “What, buddy?”

     Starsky didn’t hear him, his voice growing more agitated. “It’s coming...they’re...she’s gonna die.”

     Hutch tightened his grip, easily restraining his partner's restless movements. “No one’s gonna die, Starsk, I promise,” he said firmly. Hutch knew he was talking for his own benefit alone, but the need to help his partner was too engrained to not say anything. Besides, there was no telling when the clouds of delusion would part and something would get through to Starsky.

     “No, Terry...”

     There was grief in Starsky’s voice, and Hutch winced, understanding why. Starsky’s lady had died over six months before, but the relived pain would be no less real. Hurting along with his partner, Hutch just tucked Starsky under his chin and silently massaged the knotted muscles of his partner’s back. Why couldn’t the hallucinations at least have been pleasant ones? Hadn’t they earned that much?

     “Bear’s comin’...Hutch...” A hand clumsily tangled itself in his shirt. “They’re comin’...oh, God.” Starsky tried to burrow himself farther into Hutch’s chest, his face pressed into the crook of Hutch’s arm.

     At least that would cut down on some of the visual hallucinations, Hutch told himself, though the sense of paranoia came from within. Marcus’s cultists and their bear were long gone, but the fear remained, summoned no doubt by the same feeling of helplessness. At least Starsky's instincts were working for them as he turned to his partner instead of fighting him.

     “Hutch...I can’t find...Hutch!”

     Starsky's despairing scream made Hutch’s eyes wince shut. He knew it was the drug, but he also knew what new panic had seized his partner, and had to work harder now to contain his struggles.

     But Starsky had never fought halfheartedly for Hutch's sake in his whole life and was battling hard. One arm briefly freed itself, nearly smacking the blond in the face before Hutch could grab hold of it again. Finally, he managed to curl himself around his partner's body, effectively pinning all the flailing limbs even as Starsky's strength began to give out. Hutch pressed his face into the damp curls. “I’m right here, partner, I'm right here. I’m okay," he chanted.

     Sounds of sorrow continued, heedless.

     Hutch didn’t know what else he could do, could only repeat himself as he rocked the now-pliant body. Hutch stroked the dark hair, the slouched back, trying to break into Starsky’s nightmare world by touch if not by sound. And all the time, his own fear ran rampant.

     Starsky had gone through so much those last few weeks. Rosey Malone had broken his heart while he was still trying to help Hutch heal from crazy Diana’s near-fatal attack. Then, Dobey had left him little recovery time before sending them undercover into Cabrillo State and its nightmare of drugs and restraints. That was when Hutch had finally seen his partner begin to crack under the strain, unable to shrug off as he usually did, the trauma of the assignment. Hutch had wondered privately if the forced submission and helplessness had triggered memories of Starsky’s time with Simon Marcus’s cult, too, but of course, Starsky hadn’t been talking.

     And now he’d been held down and drugged again. Hutch drew in an almost-controlled breath. How much could one person take, even one as strong as his partner?

     Starsky was quieter now, lying as limp against Hutch as if he had no energy or fight left. He'd have slumped over onto his face if the blond would have let him go. Hutch thought for a moment he was asleep, until a peek down into his partner’s face revealed the half-open pair of glazed blue eyes staring unblinkingly ahead.

     Almost as if Starsky were gone, Hutch repressed a shudder, but he refused to think like that or accept any possibility of permanent damage. He reached around and gently dragged his hand down Starsky’s face, closing his eyes, then rested his palm on the warm forehead.

     “Sleep, Starsk,” he whispered. “I’ll keep watch.”

     He couldn’t even feel the shift into slumber, Starsky’s body already so lax that there was no slackening in sleep. Only the slow, deep breaths indicated that his partner had finally slipped into some kind of rest.

     If the drug was anything like LSD, Hutch knew the psychedelic effects could last for hours still, but it seemed like they’d reached the peak and the worst was over. At least, Hutch was praying so. He shifted minutely, trying to get the curl-covered head resting at a more comfortable angle, and Starsky didn’t even stir. That was a good sign, right, the body healing and replenishing itself?

     Dear God, he hoped so.

 

     The wall was chipped.

     Not that he really cared, but after staring at it for a day, it was hard not to notice that the wall was chipped. Damaged, just like he was. But he couldn’t seem to care about that, either. Or anything else.

     Hutch was worried about him; he was aware of that the rare times he’d summoned enough energy to think. He’d let the blond’s words wash over him unheeded and shied away from his touch until Hutch had stopped trying and left him huddled there against the wall. But he was still watching Starsky as he sat nearby, his face crinkled in concern. Starsky knew that should have bothered him, and in a vague way he regretted being the cause of his partner’s anxiety. But ultimately, he just didn’t care. Something had wrenched out of place inside, and he didn’t have the strength or desire to right it again.

     At least he was in control now, and he wasn’t about to secede that, even to Hutch. He’d woken the day before from his drug-induced nightmare to find himself enfolded in his partner’s arms, trapped. No doubt to keep him from hurting Hutch, which Starsky could understand. And he was more touched than he could say by Hutch's concern and lack of hesitation in being there for him, truly. He'd have lost it completely otherwise.

     And yet, Starsky hadn’t been able to scramble quickly enough out of those caring constraints. He'd needed to restore his autonomy again, even if the vague memories of his “trip” were enough to crush any hope he’d had of returning to normalcy. And so he’d ended up there against one wall, staring at the chipped intersecting wall before him. His choice, even if there hadn't been all that many options.

     The door rattled, and Starsky turned toward it more instinctively than out of curiosity. It had opened once before, just enough to allow a plate of lukewarm hamburgers and some water to be shoved in. He’d ignored that, too, despite Hutch’s attempts to coax him into eating.

     It wasn’t food this time. The door opened wider, and the four men appeared, the two with guns standing just in front of the pair of scientists.

     “Morning,” the dark-haired gunman greeted them, cheerfully insincere. “Sorry we had to keep you this long, but we’re just about to move out and we wanted to leave you with a little present.”

     Starsky’s sluggish mind kicked into gear despite himself, his forehead wrinkling faintly as he tried to pin down the source of his alarm. He felt more than heard Hutch shift near him, too, but their telepathy had been all but knocked out by Starsky's withdrawal.

     “We’ll have to do both of you this time--we can’t have you talking to your buddies when they arrive looking for us, can we? But you,” he looked at Starsky, “you already had a turn before. Why don’t we start with your partner here this time?” And his hand uncurled to reveal a small pile of hideously pink pills.

     Starsky’s heart began to hammer. Not again. It wasn’t possible.

     The dark blond stepped near him, his gun trained on Starsky’s head, while the two scientists circled around the other gunman and flanked Starsky's partner.

     The man spoke again, this time to Hutch. “It’s simple--we’ll kill him if you don’t cooperate, or,” he turned back to Starsky, “if you try to interfere.”

     Starsky couldn’t care less about the gun. His eyes were fixed on the innocuous-looking pile of pills.

     “He can’t take another dose,” Hutch suddenly spoke, and the hoarse anger in his voice instinctively caught Starsky’s attention. “Tie him up or leave him somewhere else, just don’t give him any more of those.”

     Starsky blinked, slowly looking up at his partner. There was fury in Hutch’s voice, anger at their being threatened, and that was all the gunman would catch. But far clearer to Starsky was the dread he saw filling those frantic blue eyes.

     His eyes swung back to the pink pills, a shudder of revulsion passing through him at the sight. He wouldn’t survive another mind rape like that, not intact. He wasn’t even sure he’d survived the last one. But as unbearable as that thought was, Hutch’s terror had to be far worse.

     The memory that came back so frequently to haunt him surfaced now, of rubbing his partner’s neck as Hutch begged him to ease his pain, of his partner prowling the room like a caged cat, breaking everything in sight...except Starsky. Hutch with his mind and body savaged but his spirit ultimately intact.

     There was something worse, after all, than being powerless to help yourself.

     The gunman hadn’t answered Hutch, merely nodded at the scientists. One took several of the pills from the dark-haired man’s hand, while the other took a step closer to Hutch.

     Drowning blue eyes flicked to Starsky’s face, to the gun against his temple, then to the approaching pills. And Starsky knew Hutch wasn’t going to resist, not even to save himself, his soul. Not with Starsky’s life at stake. Instead, he gave Starsky a long last look before closing his eyes, resigned to the inevitable.

     That was it. Starsky could bear no more.

     Instinct flooded him, the efficient training from his military past. There was no room left for reason and he acted, without thought or conscience.   

     He spun away from the blond's gun without warning, behind his captor in an instant. Before the man had any chance to react, Starsky’s arm was around his throat. One jerk, a snap, and he dropped the lifeless body, snatching the gun as it fell.

     The dark-haired man was already turning toward him, eyes rounded and gun coming up toward Starsky. But the man’s attention to Hutch had cost him a precious half-second, and Starsky’s shot caught him in the middle of his forehead as he turned. He also went down, dead before he hit the floor. Hutch’s eyes flew open at the sound of gunshot, but Starsky spared him no thought, acting on automatic.

     The scientists had panicked and were trying to flee past Starsky out the door. He grabbed the nearer one and threw him hard enough against the wall to leave an indentation. Hutch had collected himself sufficiently by then to jump on the other, and a solid right felled him next to his companion.

     It was all over in seconds. And suddenly Starsky was standing in a room with five bodies and one partner staring at him in shock.

     You could be a cop or a soldier, but not both, and for a minute he’d definitely not been a cop. Two men lay dead by his hand, savagely killed. Easily. Mercilessly.

     So much for control. Starsky nearly sobbed a laugh. The gun dropped from his hand and Starsky followed it.

     He couldn’t stand. He couldn't think. He couldn’t look at the scene before him, the bodies, the disgust on his partner’s face. He just had to get away from it, from Hutch, but all he could manage was a despairingly slow crawl.

     “Starsky--”

     Whether the disembodied shock he heard in his partner’s voice came from Hutch’s revulsion or his own muddled mind, he didn’t know or care. He just tried to retreat faster from it.

     Hutch was suddenly crouching in his path, and Starsky cringed away. “Don’t,” he pleaded.

     “Oh, Starsk,” Hutch said mournfully, without even a hint of aversion. Instead, the wash of compassion in those two words dulled Starsky’s reflexes, and he was caught in a warm embrace before he knew what was happening.

     His feeble efforts to pull away didn’t get him far. Hutch wasn’t restraining him, he was consoling him, and Starsky hadn’t the will to fight off the concern for long. His pushing away suddenly became a desperate cling and Starsky sagged, fight gone, letting Hutch take his weight and the weight of what he’d done.

     It didn't help much. Despair had filled him, leaving little room to absorb the comfort.

     He squeezed his eyes shut, hiding his face against his partner’s chest, and Hutch’s hand came up to cup the back of his head. Tangible love.

     That was the last thing he was aware of for some time.

 

     Hutch had rarely been so frightened. For his partner, not of him, not for a second, although he’d never seen Starsky snap like that before. The threat had lurked below the surface many times in the past, scaring more than one piece of street scum into obedience, but had never been given free rein like this.

     Nor did he even want to consider what had been going through Starsky’s mind to drive him to such a reaction. There was no way Starsky's actions wouldn’t affect him, no matter what reason he’d had, not a man of his conscience and moral code. Hutch had known as much as he’d watched, heart sinking, as his partner had tried to drag himself away in shame.

     He closed his eyes, not wanting to ever remember that sight.

     His own reaction had been easy, instinctive. He’d cut off Starsky’s painful retreat and then just held him, soon overpowering his instinct to flee with Hutch’s own insistence he stay. Starsky had finally shuddered and fallen into the embrace, almost desperate to find some kind of sanctuary from his anguish.

     And there they’d sat ever since, neither of them moving, Starsky unable to and Hutch unwilling.

     None of the men around them were stirring. Hutch was certain two of them were dead, and the one he’d felled was definitely alive but out for the count. The fourth had bounced off the wall with considerable force and hadn’t moved since, but he was hidden under the body of his compatriot and Hutch couldn’t tell if he was breathing or not. Sooner or later, they would have to call the troops in.

     But not until he was sure Starsky was ready.

     It was some time longer before the brunet finally moved, swallowing hard and releasing a long, shaky sigh. That was a good sign, Hutch decided, markedly better than Starsky’s harsh breathing of before. He was willing to bet the blank eyes were open again, too, and was grateful they were turned away from the scene of carnage in the small room, facing a blank wall instead.

     “You ready to get outta here?” he asked softly.

     “Have to call Dobey.” The voice was lifeless and weak, but it was still more of a response than he’d expected.

     “I’ll take care of it. Let’s get you back to the car first.”

     There was an unusual lack of resistance to either his suggestion or his gently nudging his partner onto his feet. Granted, Hutch was doing most of the work, but Starsky wasn’t one to be coddled, not unless he was at his limit. Though if the last forty-eight hours hadn’t passed it, Hutch didn’t know what would.

     Once started, Starsky kept moving on his own steam, Hutch's arm around his waist sufficient to guide him. Hutch carefully stayed between his partner and the bodies in the room, pausing only to scoop up a gun, then they went out the door and down several hallways before reaching the outside entrance.

     They both blinked in the late afternoon sunlight, and Hutch watched as some awareness trickled back into Starsky, but only enough to steady his steps a little. They slowly made their way back to the old LTD tucked into a nearby alley, out of sight from bad guys and any searching cops alike.

     Hutch opened the door, silently cursing the clutter in his back seat that he never seemed to find the time to clean out. He settled for easing Starsky into the front passenger side seat, then made a face as the brunet curled against the closed door and shut his eyes again. Not sleeping, Hutch knew too well, just shutting out the world again.

     With a shake of the head, he got in and drove to the nearest payphone several blocks away at a gas station. He parked so the phone was still in sight of the old car. Even if he’d have gone off frequency to talk to the captain, he still didn’t want to call from the car with Starsky there. Hutch dialed the precinct’s number with only slightly shaky fingers, his gaze fixed on the dark curls, all he could see of his partner.

     “Get me Dobey,” he said tersely to the operator who answered, then waited for the phone to ring again.

     “Dobey.”

     “Cap’n, this is Hutch.”

     “Hutchinson, where are you? Where’s Starsky?!" The captain’s voice rose with every question. "Do you know I’ve had every man out on the--”

     “Cap’n, I’m sorry, we couldn’t get to a phone. The last place we checked came up positive for a lab.”

     “When you didn’t call in, we sent a unit to drive by the places on your list, but there was no sign of either of your car anywhere.”

     Hutch closed his eyes. So close... “They must’ve missed it. We were caught soon after we got to the last one and locked up. Cap’n...they slipped Starsky a taste of their stuff.”

     “Dear God,” Dobey muttered. “How is he?”

     “I think most of it’s out of his system now, but he’s not dealing with it too well. I’m taking him home, but we’re gonna need some clean-up here. There’re at least two dead, two others down. And, uh, Cap’n, one has a broken neck.”

     A brief pause, but Dobey didn’t even ask. “I’ll need a statement from both of you.”

     “No one’s seeing Starsky today, I don’t care if it’s the chief of police,” Hutch snapped.

     “Take it easy, Hutchinson, I'm not the enemy,” Dobey shot back, then softened. “I’ll see what I can do. I’ll send someone over to take your statement in the meantime. Will you be at Starsky’s?”

     Hutch rubbed his forehead. “Yeah. Sorry, Cap’n.”

     “It’s all right. From what you’ve said, I don’t think Homicide or IA’s going to give you much trouble over this one. Have your doctor friend take some blood from Starsky, though—they’ll need it for evidence.”

     “No way.”

     “Hutchinson—”

     “No, sir. We were locked up in there for almost thirty-six hours. They’ll find pills on one of the guys, and guns on the scene. Starsky’s being dosed doesn’t have to be on record to establish self-defense.” Hutch softened; Dobey wasn’t the enemy. He himself would have felt better with a blood test, but Starsky was clearly over the worst of the physical reactions, and Hutch wasn't about to make his emotional recovery any harder. “Cap’n, this is killing him already,” he finally said in a near-whisper. There was precedence for what he was asking and they both knew it. Neither his medical nor his police record showed he’d ever been forcibly drugged with heroin, either.

     Another long pause. Then only, “Go take care of your partner, Hutch.”

     “I will,” he promised, and hung up.

     And Hutch returned to the LTD, and his walking-wounded partner.

 

     He’d killed two men the day before. Starsky still saw their faces, whether he closed his eyes or not. Engrossing himself in a thorough cleaning of the apartment had distracted him from remembering, but not enough. Not nearly enough.

     The lock on the front door rattled briefly in the next room, and Starsky tensed until it opened and Hutch’s warm voice greeted him. Starsky gave a half-wave over the top of the refrigerator in return, then, reassured more than he’d have admitted, returned to the complexities of freezer defrosting.

     Hutch came into the kitchen behind him, the crinkle of paper bags announcing he’d been to the grocery store. Actually, he’d probably said as much when he’d left, but Starsky had only heard that he was leaving. He knew why Hutch was there, knew the blond was keeping a careful eye on him, but Starsky no longer minded the scrutiny. He didn’t quite trust himself, either, and Hutch’s presence was one more check against his losing it again.

     A jacketed arm reached around him to stow milk and some eggs in the refrigerator, and Starsky leaned out of the way to make room. Then tried not to stiffen as the retreating hand gave his shoulder a squeeze.

     He just couldn’t understand why Hutch wasn’t angry or revolted, or even the least bit upset with him. The memories of what had happened in that small factory room were vague, almost dreamlike, but he knew for certain what he’d done, and remembered just as clearly Hutch’s reaction afterward. His partner’s quiet, unconditional embrace then had been the only thing that had kept him from falling apart altogether.

     As for now...he wasn’t sure what was holding him together anymore.

     Dobey had come by earlier that day to personally take Starsky’s statement while Hutch sat next to him, so close his knee brushed Starsky’s. Oddly enough, rehashing the details hadn’t been all that difficult, though he suspected it would have been more so to hear Hutch’s side. His partner had apparently already given his statement, probably the day before while Starsky had slept.

     The freezer finally done, Starsky restocked it with the pile on the counter, then turned to study the kitchen and figure out what to do next.

     “If you’re finished, why don’t you come out and watch TV with me?” Hutch called from the living room.

     Starsky froze, mind rebelling at the thought of sitting still, let alone next to his perceptive partner. He doubted he could have if he wanted to. Starsky's mouth opened to voice a refusal, shutting it just as quickly. Then again, what was he going to do, stay in the kitchen forever, cleaning? Hiding? From Hutch, of all people. What could his partner possibly see that was worse than what he'd already been witness to the day before?

     Still, it was slow going to leave the relative safety of his rote work. If Hutch noticed, he didn’t remark on it, already sitting on the couch and turning on the set. Starsky gingerly settled onto the other end of the sofa.

     Emergency! was on, one of his favorite shows. Starsky slowly found himself beginning to unclench as he watched the series of rescues, both serious and funny.

     A drug overdose call was next. Starsky's breath caught, all the earlier tension returning, but he didn’t move. He’d watch the show with Hutch as he’d promised, then retreat back into the kitchen.

     “The lab analyzed those pills,” Hutch suddenly spoke, almost conversationally. “They seem to be some relative of psilocybin. Flashbacks aren’t common, not like with LSD.”

     Starsky hadn’t really even allowed himself to think about the possibility of flashbacks, not with so much else to deal with, but his balled stomach eased a little at the news. He would be fit for duty, then, at least physically.

     That was, if IA ever cleared him from killing two people, one with his bare hands.

     Hutch was looking at him again, with that particular intensity as if he were feeling what Starsky felt.

     “I know how hard it is after.”

     After what, Starsky almost asked, after taking someone’s life or after being drugged? Unfortunately, Hutch had experience in both. But out loud he only said, “Doesn’t matter.”

     “Don’t even give me that, partner. I was there, remember?” Hutch said softly.

     Boy, did he. Starsky closed his eyes. He couldn’t imagine he’d ever forget.

     “You handled it better than I did,” the rueful voice continued, “and then, still fighting the influence, you saved my life on top of that.”

     “I flipped out,” Starsky said bluntly.

     Somehow, Hutch was next to him now, one hand encircling Starsky’s wrist. “Not from where I'm sitting. You lashed out, but that’s not the same as losing it. You never even tried to hurt me.”

     Starsky’s eyes flew open. “‘Course not!”

     Hutch raised a hand. “Hey, easy. All I’m saying is that you did what you had to. Did you even notice when you reached your limit? It wasn’t when they were holding you down or drugging you or,” he talked right over Starsky’s flinch, “or when they were threatening to do it to you again. It was when they were threatening me.”

     His throat worked for a moment, but Starsky didn’t say a word, too confused to know what he was thinking anymore.

     His partner’s voice grew even gentler. “You were doing it to protect me.” His gaze was almost tender. “That’s being a good cop in my book, buddy. And some friend.”

     Put like that, it almost seemed heroic. Starsky nearly snorted. He wasn’t quite ready to buy that, but Hutch’s take lightened his heart a little. It was true that there wasn’t anything Starsky wouldn’t have done to save his partner. He was still appalled at his methods, but he couldn’t argue with the results.

     As for the drugs...

     “It gets better,” Hutch said next to him, “I promise. And we’ll deal with it until it does.”

     Starsky uncurled fractionally. That didn’t make everything all better, but...it gave him some hope that eventually it would. His throat bobbed again, but his soul felt cleaner, almost purged. “Thanks,” he finally whispered, sliding down until his head was propped against his partner’s shoulder.

     Hutch wasn’t finished. “You know what I think would help?” he asked gravely.

     “What?” Starsky tried not to sound as ragged as he felt, braced anew as he waited for the axe to finally fall.

     “A large pizza with everything on it.”

     Starsky gave a startled laugh in spite of himself. It felt like a milestone.

     He sank further still into the cushions, Hutch wiggling over to give him room until Starsky finally ended up more or less horizontal, his head propped against Hutch’s leg. From there he comfortably partly watched TV and partly drifted, absently hearing his partner call and place an order. Hutch hung up the telephone and, grousing lightly about being used for a pillow, pulled the couch blanket over Starsky, then rested his hand on the brunet’s upturned shoulder.

     Maybe it had never been about losing control, Starsky thought sleepily. Maybe the real issue was who you gave it over to. There was no shame in trusting someone enough to do that.

     Hutch protectively rubbed his shoulder as if reading his thoughts, and Starsky’s mouth quirked into a tired half-smile. He himself had rarely been as proud of his partner as in those long hours up in Huggy's room.

     As for losing control the day before, it had possibly saved their lives, or at least had saved Hutch another pass through Hell. Starsky couldn’t honestly regret that. The cost was high, but not so bad when they split it between them.

     Calmed by the thought and his partner’s lulling touch, Starsky dozed until the pizza arrived.