"Want a beer?" Taking the noncommittal grunt for assent, Hutch selected two Schlitz from the refrigerator and carried them back to the sofa. The partners had maintained an uncomfortable silence during the drive home, and it stretched on even here in Hutch's living room. It was a cheerful place, with green plants hanging from all corners and the merry gurgle of the canal without adding a distinctive ambiance. Here and there the decoration still betrayed a feminine hand -- Vanessa's hand -- but on the whole, the house reflected the warm, caring personality of its owner. Today, however, tension dampened the atmosphere like a pall, muting the sunshine that cascaded in between yellow drapes.

Hutch popped the tab before handing a beer to the dejected figure beside him, shoving it into a slack grip. "Here." Uncomprehending eyes locked on the frosty can for a moment before Starsky turned his hand, accepting the offering. Hutch's fingers brushed those of his partner's in a silent gesture of comfort, before relinquishing his hold; it brought a ghost of a smile to the pale face, the barest lightening of the cloud which shadowed the blue eyes, but no more than that.

The two men sat side by side, sipping beer for what seemed an eternity, neither wielding the sheer strength of will necessary to break that conspiracy of silence that held them in thrall. Finally, though, it was the silence which reigned unbearable, and Hutch could stand it no more.

"Starsk." Starsky jumped, startled out of his brown study by that quiet voice, unnaturally loud in the stillness. "You've gotta talk to me, man. If you don't, it's going to eat you alive." Hutch cocked his head but his friend was studiously avoiding the gaze. "Talk to me, buddy," he repeated. Starsky swallowed another mouthful, risking a quick glance at the other man, and the blond caught a glimpse of eyes no longer unreadable. Pain and anger shadowed the gemstone blue, turning them black with emotion. "It's about the shooting, isn't it?" Hutch prodded.

"Blast it, Hutch," the darker man exploded without warning, "You know it's about the shooting!" He pulled up short, controlling himself with an almost Herculean effort. "I-I'm sorry," he stammered. "I didn't mean...." He stopped and set the half-empty Schlitz on the coffee table, carefully wiping away the resultant drop of condensation that fell onto the sofa arm. "It's just that ... it's never easy to have to kill anyone. You know that." The words were correct, but there was an elusive quality to them that told Hutch his partner was not being completely open with him.

"I do know that, Starsk. I also know that's not all that's bothering you." When that failed to provoke a response, he tried another tack. "I was a little worried about you, buddy. When Kowalski started in, I expected you to shove his teeth down his throat." Again that significant silence. "Why didn't you?"

"I never thanked you for being there, did I?" Starsky shot his friend a quick, shy smile. "You waded right into him. Thought you were going to take him out for me."

"Tell you a secret," the blond chuckled, "so did I." He paused, scrubbing awkwardly at a spot on his brown slacks. "You were awfully quiet in there this afternoon, Starsk. Why did you let Ol' Ollie get away with what he was saying?"

The shy smile faded His voice was so low that Hutch had to strain to hear the reply. "Because Kowalski was right. I wasn't doing my job, and that girl could have died."

Hutch attempted a reasonable approach, ignoring the fact that a reasonable approach had never worked with his partner before. "You'd just seen what you thought was your best friend being blown away." Starsky flinched at that, but Hutch doggedly pursued his point. "It's only natural that you would forget the girl and--"

"But I didn't forget about her!" Starsky blurted. "I didn't forget. God forgive me, I just didn't care!" He bowed his head again, ashamed at the admission, both hands tightly clenched in his lap "I didn't care. I was willing to let that girl die and I'd do it again."

He choked off as the memory of the moment replayed itself in both men's minds as it had so often since the incident. Hutch heard again the shots that had rung out from the speeding car, felt the impact as they flattened themselves against his Kevlar vest, then the almost unfelt secondary thud as he'd gone through the plate glass storefront. He blinked as he saw again the look that had been on his partner's face when he'd broken through the crowd and come into view -- the terror, the grief that went beyond numbness. Starsky's touch had been fleeting, almost disbelieving, and Hutch had reached out himself, moved to offer what reassurance he could despite the pain it had cost his bruised ribs. He'd stroked the dark curls once before Starsky had slipped from his knees to the ground, leaning his back against the building. It had been a long time before either had had the strength to move again.

It had been nearly a half hour before two uniformed patrolmen had given them a ride back to the van where the ransom money was returned to Dobey and explanations given. Actually, it had been Hutch and the patrolmen who had given explanations -- Starsky had answered monosyllabically, standing rigid, fists clenched to control the trembling which afflicted both men and which neither could seem to stop.

Dobey had accepted what answers he'd gotten then, mercifully dismissing them after a few moments with the knowledge that a young girl's last hope lay in what those men could accomplish out on the streets. They'd left at little less than a dead run, gaining the privacy of the Torino before collapsing.

Hutch had leaned his head back, attempting to force taut muscles to relax slightly. He held one hand up, pleased to see the quivering in it was abating, adrenal rush fading. "That was close," he'd said softly. "Saw St. Peter's whiskers that time." The attempt to lighten the mood fell flat as he knew it would. Starsky still lay against the steering wheel, head buried in his arms. "Starsk? You all right?"

The reply came low, muffled, but no less anguished. "I thought you were dead."

"Hey, buddy," Hutch tugged gently on tense shoulders. "Starsk?"

Slowly, reluctantly, Starsky allowed himself to be pulled from the concealing shelter of his arms and around to face his friend. He met Hutch's eyes almost timidly, as though afraid of what he might find there. But when their eyes met, neither man was able to turn away. A spark, sharp as a laser, burned between them, riveting both into immobility. Finally, Hutch, with a strength he wasn't aware he possessed, had broken the mesmerizing spell, concern coloring his speech. "Starsk? Are you going to be all right?"

"Am I--?" The liquid eyes widened, encompassing the blond in a wave of purest emotion. "I wasn't the one just... sho--" He choked on the word, closing his eyes briefly. A shudder ran through the slender body. "I thought you were dead!" And then he'd thrown one arm around Hutch's neck, pulling him close in a choke hold. "I thought you were dead," he repeated the phrase in a quivering whisper, voice and body trembling with not-so- delayed terror.

Hutch winced slightly at the extra twist put on his bruised ribs, but hadn't hesitate to wrap the other man in his own embrace. "Hey, easy, buddy, it's all right." And only his own renewed shaking belied the comfort in those words. He'd looked down the muzzle of a gun and known he was going to die right there on that squalid inner city street. The belief had been mercifully brief before giving way to the wondering joy of the realization of continued life, while the glass from the shattered window tinkled down around him and pain erupted across his chest. Pain -- welcome pain -- for the dead did not hurt at all. His terror had lasted a fraction of a second before life had reestablished its hold on him. For Starsky, the terror and the grief had been drawn out long minutes before he could return to his partner's side.

Until now he'd assumed that this was the source of his partner's continued distress. Now he hesitated, stunned by the revelation. So this was what had been bothering him!. It wasn't only having had to take two lives. He blamed himself for the extra risk to Joanna and for being human enough to allow shock and emotion to overreach his training. Hutch sighed. This kind of self-doubt could be a staggering burden for him to shoulder, but, if it was Starsky's burden, then it was his as well, for he well knew the priorities that Starsky put on his -- Ken Hutchinson's -- life.

"Starsk?" Hutch reached an arm around his friend's shoulders. "Come here, partner," he offered gently, and Starsky allowed himself to be pulled close into that comforting embrace. Hutch wrapped both arms around his friend, feeling Starsky's arms tighten around his own waist. The curly head settled against his chest, face buried in the soft folds of the old flannel shirt Hutch was wearing, and then Starsky's control lapsed and the tears began to flow in earnest. He didn't sob -- didn't make a sound -- simply let the tears gather and fall with an unnerving silence which told Hutch more than anything just how badly this incident had shaken him.

Hutchinson held on tightly, offering what consolation he could. "You're not alone, Starsky," he added as firmly as his shaking voice would allow, but it was enough, for the burden was too heavy for one man to bear -- for this man to bear. Alone, it would crush him. But he was not alone and the burden was not a solitary one. It was shared -- must be shared -- for it had been for HIM that Starsky had offered up everything: his honor, the life of an innocent child, even his own life, all on the altar composed in equal parts of grief, vengeance, and friendship. Offered everything -- as Hutch would have, had the situations been reversed.

The tears were few and soon Starsky sat quietly, slumped in Hutch's arms, wrung out emotionally and physically. But it was a long time later before he made an effort to pull away. Hutch gave the curly head a final pat before releasing him. "You okay?" A nod was the only reply, but Hutch judged his partner calm enough to reason with. "Ready to listen to me, now?" he questioned mildly. Again, no reply, only that silently bowed head. Hutch turned slightly, catching his partner by the shoulders and giving him a little shake "Are you ready to listen to me, now?"

Blue eyes met concerned blue eyes before darting away. A half-hearted nod, which Hutch took as inducement to go on. "You're blaming yourself, Starsk, and you've no right." Starsky's eyes widened slightly at the seeming incongruity of the statement. Well, at least he was listening. "You're a cop, Starsk, and a cop acts on instincts a lot more often than he does by reasoning things out. That's what keeps us alive in situations like that."

"But--"

"I'm not finished." He waited until Starsky had leaned forward, his arms crossed on his knees. The blond took a deep breath, his own fist clenched very tight. "You're too close to this thing to see the big picture. Your instinct -- your gut reaction -- told you that these men were armed killers who would probably have cost a lot more lives than just one. They had to be stopped, and you did just that -- in the only way you could. Instinct, Starsk, a cop's instinct."

Starsky considered this for a moment, then shrugged it away. "It doesn't wash, Hutch," he said wearily. "I wasn't thinking about stopping a criminal. I wanted them dead and ... they're dead." He sighed deeply, eyes fixed on the faded blue denim of his jeans. "Ain't nothing noble about that. And that girl..."

"...could have died," Hutch finished. "But do you think she'd have been any more alive if her kidnappers had escaped?"

The dark-haired man was forced to concede the principle. "No, I guess not."

"No, she would not have." Hutch drove the point home with a jab to his friend's ribs. "She would have been dead and those men would have been free to put another family through that same type of torture." The jab turned into a playful tap on the arm. "Gut instinct, Starsk."

It took a visible effort for Starsky to raise his head and meet his friend's eye. When he spoke, his voice was desperate for both understanding and comfort, yet not quite ready to accept either. "Hutch, I didn't care about them or the girl. Can't you see that? I didn't care." His voice rose on that last. "I was willing to let three people die because..." He broke off, horrified of what he was about to say, but the blond picked it up without hesitation.

"...because of me. It's all right to say it, Starsk. I ... know."

"I wasn't tryin' to blame you, Hutch. My problem. And what kind of a cop do you think that makes me?" He hung his head again.

"You idiot." Hutch gently ruffled the dark curls. "Do you honestly think I wouldn't have done the same thing?"

Jaw firming, Starsky met Hutch's gaze without hesitation. "No. I don't think you would have."

"Trouble with you, buddy, is that you don't think," Hutch retorted, not unkindly. "You feel. Too much, sometimes." He paused. "Why don't you think I'd've done the same thing?" he added curiously.

Upholstery creaked when Starsky stirred uncomfortably. "I just ... know you. You wouldn't have gone off half-cocked like that."

"No?" disbelievingly.

"No." The dark head bowed again, almost but not quite hiding the tear- stained face from view beneath a curtain of dark curls. "You don't ... freak out like that, Hutch. You're always in control. Always. You wouldn't'a risked that girl's life for ... for.... You just wouldn't have, that's all."

Hutch laughed slightly, a husky sound full of tenderness. "You're describing a perfect man, Starsk. I'm not perfect -- you of all people know that. I'm human, too, just like you, and humans are forced to do things they have to live with sometimes. And you're wrong," he added cryptically. He waited until the puzzled eyes met his own. "I would have done the same thing. Exactly. And I would've felt lousy about it afterward, but I still think it was the only thing that either of us could've done." That simple statement, sincerely made, seemed to have the desired effect on the other man. Starsky ran a shaky hand across his tear- streaked face, brushing away the last of the wetness there, and took a deep breath. Hutch placed a warm hand on the other man's shoulder and shook him gently. "You okay now?"

"Yeah. I think ... maybe I am."

"Good. There's one more thing, buddy. I want to know what you're going to tell the Review Board this afternoon."

Starsky clapped his forehead with his palm. "Oh, no. The Board," he groaned. "I forgot about them." He sighed., studying his clasped hands for a while before answering. "I'm going to tell them what happened."

Hutch was not about to let it go so easily. "And what did happen?"

"That..." Starsky swallowed. He drew a deep breath. "The kidnappers opened fire on a police officer when it appeared they couldn't collect the ransom at the drop point, and I-I had to shoot at the vehicle to prevent their escape. There was no other way to stop them."

"There wasn't, was there?" Hutch prodded gently.

"No." Starsky shook his head decisively and held Hutch's eyes easily for the first time in almost two days. "No, there wasn't."

"And you're not going to bring up anything we've talked about?" He pressed the advantage, leaning forward and tapping the other's jeans clad knee. "I don't want you to bring up anything else except the facts at the Review Board hearing. No motivations, no guilt, no feelings. Only what happened. If they ask you for more, you tell them what I told you. Do you understand me?"

Starsky studied him for several long minutes, but whatever it was he needed to see in Hutch's face must have been there, because he acquiesced without argument. "Yes, I understand."

"Good!" Hutch clapped him on the back. "It was a righteous shoot, Starsk, and the board will let it go at that." A beat. "It will work itself out for you, too, partner. I promise it will."

"Yeah." Starsky shot him a shy smile and patted the hand still absently resting on his knee. "It'll work out."

And they both knew it would work out, because whatever happened, they'd face it all -- together.

Finish