It's clear the third time he catches his toe on the risers of the short flight of stairs to Hutch's apartment that Starsky should be at home, sprawled face-down in his clothes on the bed, one shoe off and the other still on because the laces are knotted and his fingers are too unruly and far away from his brain to work them loose. But he's not in bed. He's climbing the stairs after Hutch, putting his feet in the invisible prints of Hutch's boots--stepping close to the left wall on the eighth stair because of the squeak--his own shoes silent but his knees creaking like there's rust in the joints. He's practically asleep, his eyes on Hutch's back as he follows him through the haze of an almost-dream. Hutch is a serration of anxiety in the floating; in a dream he's the person glimpsed in a crowd who won't turn around, who's gone at the next corner and all that's left is a cold place and a message undelivered. Starsky hates those dreams. That cold feeling makes him jog the last couple of steps so that he's a shadow right on Hutch's heels when he hits the landing.
Hutch doesn't turn around or invite him in, but he doesn't close the door behind him, either.
Starsky's here because he's seen it coming. With Hutch, the shouting and the frustration and the negotiation and the demanding that goes on in Dobey's office, that's surface, chop on the ocean, smoothed by a slow stroke of wind, and the water doesn't remember the next day when the storm's past. There's more there, though, underneath where the currents are, and it doesn't come out in the shouting in Dobey's office. It all comes out in the curve of his back.
Three days. Three days have made Starsky slow, so he's not there quite fast enough when it happens, sees it from a few paces away, and he's moving already but heavily, premature sleep paralysis like quicksand dragging at his feet.
A flash of silver in the pearl-grey of 4 a.m., the house key slips out from between Hutch's fingers and Hutch curls forward, bowed low under the weight of three days, three days and three girls and a near-miss--there's a livid stripe across Starsky's neck and a hole in a crate of oranges. Starsky had thought the orange juice was his own blood and he'd coughed out an incredulous laugh when his hand came away sticky and sweet, and Hutch had, too, before he'd stood and gone outside into the alley to puke up three days of nothing.
Hutch curls forward, a question mark at the end of the question he's been asking for seven years. Jocelyn Kandinsky between the bed and the wall, Anita Spender curled up behind the boiler in the basement of her apartment building, Emily Ng folded neatly into the space between the candy counter and the cash register. Hutch gentled his way past the protective terrier to close her eyes. Too late. Hutch can't bend time.
From the other end of the coffee table, Starsky watches it happen like it's time-lapse photography, seven years of erosion played out in two seconds as Hutch collapses from the inside. Or maybe it's explosive charges expertly set--in that last phone call to the station, the one about Emily Ng, the breathy, childlike voice asked for Hutch by name--so that the whole building comes down, straight down, buckled knees cracking to the floor before Starsky can get there to break the fall. But he gets a hand on Hutch's arm, twists his fingers into the sleeve of his flannel shirt as Hutch curves forward, and the momentum pulls Starsky down too, in a tangle of limbs so he forgets for a disorienting second which ones belong to him.
When he figures it out, he's on his knees in front of Hutch and Hutch is on his knees, too, with his fingers laced across the back of his neck, protective, under fire, and he's still bowed low--too much, too late--his head against Starsky's chest and it's impossible to tell whose ragged breathing Starsky's hearing.
"Yeah," Starsky says into Hutch's hair. He smells like the city, sweat and cinders and blood.
Because of the mess of Hutch's knuckles, Starsky grips his wrists instead, pulls against Hutch's resistance to get him to let loose, sit up. "Lean back here," he tells him. Hutch obeys and slumps back against the couch, boneless except for the fists. And they're still there, balled up on Hutch's raised knees when Starsky comes back from the bathroom with a wet cloth and sits down on the coffee table to play nurse. After a couple of minutes of careful dabbing and wiping, Hutch's hand starts to relax, unfolding on Starsky's knee like some kind of sea creature blooming in a new tide.
The dried blood is all Hutch's, and once it's cleaned up, Starsky can work at the biggest of the splinters. The smaller ones will have to wait for better light. In the back room of Emily Ng's shop, there's fist-shaped dent in a packing crate that maybe should have been in Ivan Precosky's face. His eyes were wide and his mouth made an innocent "O" of surprise when Hutch snagged him by the collar of his shirt and spun him around against the stack of crates. Ivan's round, soft face was almost like a doll's, or a child's, and Emily Ng's blood was still under his fingernails.
Starsky looks up from the map of cuts on Hutch's hand to see if the sun is ever going to show and finds Hutch watching him. His eyes are like glass. With a soft laugh that's part indulgence, part annoyance, Starsky reaches over and closes them, letting his fingers linger there to make the point. "It's okay to be tired."
"Yeah." Starsky shifts his touch to Hutch's forehead and gives him a little push so that his head falls back on the cushions. "You're not God, you know."
With his head tilted, Hutch's throat is open, vulnerable, and it's easy for Starsky to let his fingers travel down and along the tendon that stretches from ear to shoulder before getting back to the splinters.
"How do you know?"
"Because God never looks this rough," Starsky answers, adding a little "Ah ha," as another splinter comes free. He holds it up in the wan light. "Besides, I'm God, remember?"
"Ha ha," Hutch says without much enthusiasm, but when Starsky glances up there's a narrow blue gleam from one half-open eye and the slight, downward curve of the lips that might be a grudging smile. The eye slides shut and Hutch's face relaxes except for the notch between his brows.
"You fall asleep like that you'll break your neck." Starsky tosses the cloth in the direction of the kitchen and gives Hutch a shake. "C'mon." When he starts to get up, Hutch's fingers close hard around his knee.
He opens his eyes and they say too much, too late, but all he asks for is "Five minutes," before he closes them again.
With a sigh, Starsky slides off the coffee table and settles down next to him on the floor, nudging him until he lifts his head so Starsky can get an arm behind it, make a better angle for his neck.
"They never do," Hutch says after a long time.
"The Ivan Precoskys." Hutch lifts his fingers from his stomach to point vaguely out there. "Whoever's already taking his place.They never do."
Starsky has no answer for this. Outside on Ocean Blvd., there's a grinding of gears, and squeal of rusty brakes, a clatter of cans. One of the garbage men shouts and there's an answering laugh from the other. After awhile the noise moves on down the block. Starsky watches through heavy-lidded eyes as the thin sunlight gropes its way into the apartment, and on his lap, his hand covers Hutch's, palm to palm, like a forgotten gesture of prayer.