Eclipse

by

Rosemary

 

"Hutch, what do you say to you'n'me splittin' this scene? Doesn't matter where—you choose. We could go to that new health food joint you were tellin' me about last week. You know, the one with the forty-two different kinds of seaweed salad. Anyplace you want. Only, please, let's leave now, together..."

The storm drowned out any reply Hutch might have made. At least, that's what Starsky told himself.

The dark-haired detective looked up from the mud to which he'd been addressing his thoughts. His gaze locked with that of the older woman standing beside his captain. Those pale blue eyes didn't belong in that wrinkled, hard face. They belonged to another...Hutch.

Starsky resented her presence here. In the past ten years, or maybe in all of Hutch's childhood, she hadn't spared her son half the time she'd spent dutifully sitting beside his silent figure these last three days. She didn't belong here.

Hutch didn't belong here.

But they were both here. She'd stay until dismissed from her maternal obligations—weren't mothers supposed to cry at times like this?—and his partner... well, Hutch would just stay.

Thunder crashed through the icy morning downpour, shaking the hand of the faceless person who was holding the umbrella above Starsky's lowered head. Mercifully, the heavenly crash drowned out the preacher.

Starsky hadn't heard a single one of the many words the reverend had uttered in the last... Starsky didn't know how long. Abruptly attentive, he watched as they carefully settled his partner above Hutch's new home.

"Hutch, let's go now, please..."

Somebody handed him a rose. Starsky stared at it in incomprehension for a long moment. Then, finally understanding its purpose, he slowly bent over and gently dropped the fragile offering on the already rain-splattered coffin lid.

Huggy tugged at Starsky's sopping sleeve, pulling the dazed detective back under the sheltering umbrella.

The ceremony complete, the gaggle of participants, save two, deserted the desolate spot, no doubt heading towards the comfort of their dry homes and warm drinks.

Starsky just stood, waiting. He was aware of his captain pausing beside him and Huggy, could almost feel those worried brown eyes digging into the side of his face.

Huggy Bear moved beside Starsky, inadvertently jostling him as he nodded to the captain. "You'll be wantin' to take Mrs. Hutchinson back to her hotel now, Captain. I'll stay with him."

Huggy's whisper was just so much sound. For all the notice Starsky took of the exchange, the two black men might just as well have shouted their conversation and remained unheard.

With visible reluctance, the captain nodded, moving to where his weeping wife waited with the tearless Mrs. Hutchinson.

Starsky and Huggy lingered, silently huddled under the one leaky umbrella, selfishly keeping the waiting gravediggers from their work.

The taller and thinner of the pair looked down, quietly watched the relentless rain and mud completely destroy a $90 pair of shoes. But The Pits' proprietor made no protest, didn't try to hurry his grieving friend. Like everyone else, Huggy had been tiptoeing on eggshells around Starsky, waiting for the explosion.

At last Huggy Bear looked at his companion, his gaunt, mismatched features grimacing, as if the very sight of a Starsky without his Hutch hurt. For a long moment, the black man just watched his old friend as Starsky's bloodshot, unblinking stare followed the bleeding petals of the pulverized rose that were now streaming down the side of the coffin in the unmitigated deluge.

"Come on, Starsk. It's time to go."

Starsky glanced up, angry denial glowering momentarily in his over-tired eyes. The sight of the drenched black man standing so patiently beside him softened his anger.

Biting back the protest, he gave a slow assenting nod, left with no choice but to accept the inevitable parting.

Docile as a small child, he let Huggy lead him away, looking back only once at the lonely spot where they'd left Hutch. Somehow, Starsky couldn't bring himself to say good-bye.

*~*~*

Fourteen hours later the rain had ceased, but not the electrical storm.

In between the bursts of thunder and lightning, Starsky's apartment stood dark and silent as a freshly dug grave. No motion could be seen behind the windows, although the living room, or more specifically, the couch, was occupied.

An erratic spark of reflected lightning cheerfully danced its way across the ceiling. Its brilliance hurt his eyes. Ignoring the pain, Starsky forced his eyes to remain open. The light would go away soon. The new pain didn't matter. His eyes already stung from unshed tears and from staring and staring at the ceiling. But he wouldn't let them close. Every time he lowered his eyelids for more than the microseconds it took to blink, an image of Hutch lying white and cold as marble on that slab in the frigid morgue would flash into his mind.

The numbness of shock was finally fading. This morning's funeral had effectively buried Starsky's disbelief. Now it was real and any doubts which might have insulated him from the pain had been laid to rest with Hutch. The hurt was claiming its victory. The final victory.

Starsky looked around for the bottle.

Over a bottle and a half of wine gone. It hadn't helped any. He ached just as much now as before he'd touched the stuff. It hadn't granted him the dreamless sleep that Huggy had promised him and...and Hutch was still dead.

Still dead? Weird way of thinking about something that's forever. Forever without Hutch.

A shaking hand reached for the half-empty bottle at the foot of the couch. There was no forever without Hutch, only the time it would take Starsky to track down his partner's murderers. There was a score to be settled—in blood.

Blood. The wine inside him lurched upward, searing its way through his stomach lining even as the word seared horror through his mind. There hadn't been enough blood left in Hutch to kill a flea.

Not shrinking this time from the images that appeared behind his eyes, Starsky closed them, remembering: Hutch so still and pale. Ginny, the medical examiner, her sweet voice choking on its professionalism as she intoned the words that had obliterated Starsky's life—"Death due to excessive blood loss, apparently the victim of some ritual slaying..."

Excessive blood loss, hell! In his eleven years on the force Starsky had never seen a corpse that white. Barely a drop had remained in Hutch's body, and barely a trace had remained of the puncture wound through which all that blood had been drained. There were no knife wounds, no open arteries. The bruises and discolorations that would have accompanied the utilization of the suction device—in ritual slaying?—which Ginny had theorized was used were completely absent. Ginny said that the lack of marking was impossible. She'd also said that it was impossible for that much blood to be drained from the human body, but as both had happened, Starsky saw little point in arguing with her.

The only marks that had been on Hutch were two tiny insect bite-like puncture points above the jugular vein. However they'd done it, they'd been neat about it.

THEY. Starsky didn't know who THEY were, but he would. If he had to bust every Satanist and sicko in town, he would. Revenge was all he had left.

He was even out of wine.

Head spinning from the sudden motion, Starsky stood and started across the dark room. There was a bottle of scotch, good stuff he'd covetously hoarded for a special occasion, hidden in the bottom drawer of his oak desk.

Now that there wouldn't be any more special occasions, Starsky saw no reason to save it. Besides, he needed something to get him through the night.

Thunder crashed through the darkness around him. He'd mistimed his movements. There was no lightning to guide his blind steps.

Both Starsky and the lamp wobbled when he brushed into it. He turned it on, resisting the urge to clamp his tortured eyes shut as they were once again assaulted by light.

Locating the right drawer, Starsky tugged it open and glanced in, his entire body turning to ice. The knot in his chest constricted, strangling his heart.

He gaped at the unexpected photograph. A bunch of rednecks, crowded too closely together for safety or comfort, grinned drunkenly up at him from the snapshot. The cowboys he totally ignored, Starsky's tormented gaze fixing on the tuft of golden hair in the center of the country chorus line. Hutch, wearing the ridiculous, tent-like serape that Starsky loved to tease his partner about.

Starsky's index finger lightly touched the tiny, grinning face. The glossy surface of the photo was cool to the touch, corpse cold. A drop of water plopped onto the shiny surface. Before the tear could damage, Starsky used his wrinkled shirt cuff to sop it up.

Gaze locked on that haunting memory, he searched blindly in the drawer with his left hand, unable to move his eyes from the photo. Finally, he located the neck of the bottle. Starsky reverently replaced the picture, then shoved the drawer closed.

God damn it! Wasn't there anywhere he could look without seeing something that reminded him of Hutch? Close his eyes, Hutch was there, cold and dead in his mind's eye. Open a drawer, and Hutch was there, too, laughing up at him from some forgotten memory, but just as dead.

The tear triggered by the picture was not alone, Starsky could feel an hysterical mob of them, struggling behind his tear ducts, clamoring for his defenses to crumble.

But Starsky couldn't allow himself to break, not yet. There was one job he had to do first, then it wouldn't matter any more.

He took a deep breath, forced control to return, brutally subduing the tears. His nerves were shot to hell. He needed rest, not booze, but how was he supposed to sleep with Hutch's dead face pasted to the back of his eyelids?

Maybe some air would help.

He moved to the window, opening it a few inches more than the cool night merited. The chilly breeze fluttered his sweaty dress shirt, sending shivers down his spine. But the air did make him feel better.

He rested his burning brow on the cold glass, gazing blankly out at the view. The houses across the street were all dark, their residents long ago asleep. Starsk's weary gaze strayed down the street.

Surprisingly, it wasn't empty.

The chill of the night air suddenly tripled, pricking up Starsky's flesh in goose bumps. His eyes widened in unconscious recognition of a longed-for truth, which just couldn't be. Every cell in his body turned to ice as Starsky fought the evidence of his eyes.

Beneath the street lamp on the other side of the road, a tall, darkly clad, familiar figure stood in the small circle of dim light, staring silently up at Starsky's window in apparent bewilderment.

Lightning flashed again overhead. The silver rays sparked off strands of fine, blond hair.

Starsky didn't require the extra light. Instinctively, he knew. He'd run his fingers through that baby fine nimbus a thousand times...

"Hutch..." Barely a whisper, the word was tinged with disbelief.

The front door was a million miles away, but he reached it in seconds. After stumbling over furniture and cursing the reluctant lock, Starsky finally achieved his freedom, the door was open to the night.

"Hutch!" his frantic scream overshadowed the pealing thunder. The desperate need flashing in his eyes was far more vital than the sparks of heavenly friction darting through the skies above.

Starsky fled down the stairs to an empty street. "Hutch! Come back! Hutch...."

Nothing.

There was no one under the lamp post.

Starsky raced to it, scanning the now deserted street, peering into the darkness of houses and yards that lay beyond the boundaries of light.

"Hutch?" This time the name was a sob.

Thunder roared again, disturbing the sleep of a bird.

Starsky's frightened eyes followed its ebony silhouette as it disappeared into the shadowy trees in its lonely search for a quiet resting place.

*~*~*

"Hutch, you in there?"

A muffled voice emerged from behind the closed bathroom door, "...out in a minute."

A bolt of joy shot through Starsky when he heard his partner's voice. He sat on the edge of the couch, his strained emotions overwhelmed by a sense of relief and sweet yearning. Somewhere in Starsky's dreaming mind, a horrible truth struggled to assert itself. Hutch shouldn't be...

Starsky suppressed the shouldn't be, knowing that here, in the past, his partner could be alive for him again.

He rested his foot on the nearby coffee table, accidentally knocking over one of the many pill bottles lined on it. Bending to pick the bottle up, Starsky tried not to read it, but since he had examined it in the past, this time he had no conscious control over his actions. Vitamin C, extra strength. Starsky placed it next to the row of Bs, Ds, As, and Es. Alphabet soup, all of it useless. Starsky figured that real soup would probably do his friend more good than the stupid pills, if only Hutch could keep the broth down long enough.

He heard the bathroom door open behind him, felt his stomach muscles tighten up in response to that harmless sound. He was afraid to turn around and look, terrified of what he might see.

"Starsk?"

That voice could lure him into the grave. Starsky turned, prepared for whatever horror awaited.

But it was only Hutch standing there, no gibbering, rotting corpse like in the other nightmares he'd had.

"How you feelin'?" Only concern tinged his voice. Starsky wondered why it revealed none of the euphoria the sight of his pale partner filled him with.

"Fine." The word was barely spoken when Hutch's face suddenly blanched even whiter. The blond's hands shot out, searching for purchase as his body began to sway.

As he'd done the last time he'd seen his partner alive, Starsky jumped up and grabbed his friend. Hutch felt real under his fingers, but his arms wouldn't operate the way Starsky wanted them to. He wanted, needed, to hug his partner, to assure himself of Hutch's living reality, but his hands seemed frozen in that steadying shoulder clasp.

"We're takin' you to a doctor," Starsky insisted, silently pleading, Please, Hutch, go with me this time?

The scene replayed picture perfect, tragically true to life, as Hutch denied, "No, I'm all right."

"Sure, you're just perfect. Your knees always wobble when you look at me."

Hutch gave him a weak smile at that. "Maybe they do."

"C'mon, Hutch, be serious. We're goin' to the doctor and I ain't takin' no for an answer."

"Well, you ain't takin' me with you," Hutch shot back sarcastically.

They glared at each other for a few silent moments. Starsky relived the anger he'd felt at Hutch's stubbornness.

Only now it was tinged with a desperation that made him want to scream his frustration to the universe, for, even as he pleaded and cajoled as he'd done that fatal day, Starsky was sickeningly aware that he was as helpless against the flow of events now as he'd been then.

"Hutch, you gotta take care of yourself."

"I am," the blond assured, almost staggering to the couch. "I'm feeling much better."

"You don't look any better. You look worse. The doctor would...."

"Tell me to take two aspirins and call him when I'm better. It's the flu, Starsk. It takes time to work itself out of your system. Besides, I haven't even got a fever." Hutch tilted his head back, as if daring his worried partner to disprove his claim.

Starsky laid his palm on the offered forehead. The pale skin was cool, almost too cool. "That don't mean a thing. You didn't have one three days ago either."

"Then I couldn't be that sick; could I?"

Starsky paused, staring at his partner. Hutch looked that sick. The blond's ashen face, tired eyes, too-thin body and lack of energy all worried the former New Yorker.

"Look, Starsk," Hutch began gently, "if I'm not any better tomorrow, you can take me to the doctor. Promise."

"Why not tonight?"

"Because," Hutch smiled, looking more like himself than he had all week, "Angie's coming over in a little while with a pot of soup she promised will fix me right up."

And that had convinced Starsky. He'd figured that Hutch couldn't be as sick as he looked if he were up to entertaining his latest lady friend.

As he'd done that last night together, Starsky felt himself break into a grin. Inside, a little piece of himself died as that awful truth edged closer to his subconscious mind.

But there were no second chances. The paralysis of will imposed by his unconscious mind refrained him as effectively as Hutch's persuasion had that actual night. Starsky could change nothing.

"When am I gonna meet this lovely lady of yours? Maybe I should stick around and nurse you till she gets here. Then the three of us could..." His joking words tasted like poison.

"No, not tonight. You're going home, buddy." Hutch was on his feet again and gently, but firmly, shuffling Starsky to the door.

"But..." He felt like screaming in frustration as Hutch closed him out.

"See you in the morning," the blond promised, locking the door as Starsky at last regained control of his hands and started reaching for his friend.

The dark wood felt icy under his fingers, strangely slick. "Hutch!"

Starsky's frightened voice was louder this time. More desperate. He lifted both fists to pound on that shut door...

"Hutch?" Starsky's voice cracked on the name as his head banged into his living room window.

Beyond the cold glass, night was fading. Dawn had finally arrived, only it wasn't rosy fingered like in Hutch's books. A pervasive gray light stole upon the darkness, insinuating itself rather than conquering outright. The dreary half-light hung in the air like smog, a dim twilight misting the world.

Starsky was grateful for even that small concession. The night, with all its dreams and specters, was gone. He stared at the empty lamppost across the road for a long time, considering.

It could have been just a phantom of his overstrained psyche. Three days without sleep. Starsky figured he might have dozed off without knowing it, only...

A picture flashed in his mind, startlingly vivid. The blackness of the deserted street shattered by streaks of silvery light bouncing off windblown hair.

He had seen Hutch.

But was it only because he'd wanted to see him, the rational part of his mind jabbed. Did he need Hutch so badly that he was no longer capable of facing reality without him? Reality was Hutch dead, a condition that Starsky knew he'd do anything to alter. Was his mind fixing the situation for him?

He thought about the dream that had awoken him. That had seemed real. When Hutch had touched him, he'd felt it. Everything had seemed as natural and real in that reliving of their last moments together as it had been during the actual experience, except... except that Starsky had known all along that it was a dream and that Hutch was going to die.

What he'd seen outside his window last night, that was something completely different.

Starsky tried to think what else that spectral visitation might have been besides a dream.

An hallucination? No, he hadn't been that drunk. The only thing feverish last night had been his reaction. Hutch and everything else were clear and solid. He'd seen his partner, felt the chilled night winds against his skin. They were physical and real.

As real as the corpse he'd held in his arms four days ago, sanity challenged.

Starsky shuddered, knowing that nothing would ever be that real again.

Hutch was dead. They'd buried him yesterday morning. That was reality. Anything else was just wishful thinking.

Giving the gray street one last look, Starsky lurched to his feet and stumbled to the bathroom. He had a killer to catch.

*~*~*

The sun had set, leaving the sky streaked with deepening purple and red hues.

Day four shot to hell. Starsky turned into his driveway, glad that the houses and trees cut off his spectacular view of the setting sun, which seemed nothing so much as a bitter reminder of his failure.

Nothing was turning. Huggy's best leads had run dry.

This afternoon Starsky had visited five cults that were suspected of going too far in their rituals. Nothing had come of it, except Starsky's own loss of control. That last Satanist, Santelli, would probably be preferring charges.

The thought didn't bother him. So what if the headhunters wanted his badge? What did his badge matter now? IA could have it. All Starsky wanted was the revenge that would put his own soul and Hutch's ghost to rest.

GHOST. That was another of the stops Starsky had made today. The cemetery. To visit and...and see for himself that his partner was really there.

The casket had been covered, of course. Although muddy, the dirt on top of Hutch's grave had seemed undisturbed. But the grave was so new that it was hard for Starsky to tell. The tombstone hadn't even been erected yet. Starsky had been glad of that. The tiny marker bearing Hutch's name had been bad enough. The finality of the printed KENNETH HUTCHINSON glinting in the early morning sun had stabbed right through Starsky. Hutch was down there under all that wet mud. The sunlight that his partner had loved so much would never reach Hutch, just the cold and rain.

Unwilling to continue that morbid line of thought, Starsky reached to turn off the ignition, his gaze helplessly falling on the empty passenger seat...again. All day long that had been happening. Without thinking, Starsky would look over, and that same pain would go ripping through his soul like a razor. Hutch's crushed coffee cup from the last taco joint they'd stopped in together was still sticking out from where his slobbish partner had stashed it between the door and the side of the seat, the comics Hutch had been reading to him on stakeout last Sunday were squashed on the floor and, when Starsky looked real close, even now in the semi-darkness, he could see two strands of blond hair sticking out from the corner of the passenger seat's head rest. There was more to the list of reminders, Starsky knew. The glove compartment where Hutch had shoved the book he was currently reading, the blond's garbage dump in the Torino's back seat, the tennis racquets in the trunk, even Starsky's wallet... there was a piece of Hutch everywhere he looked.

"Oh, Hutch..." he whispered, leaning his head against the steering wheel, wanting to stay like that forever. His aching body needed rest, but...

He had a killer to catch.

Huggy would be here any minute. Starsky knew he didn't have time for this. He had to pull himself together. Now.

Sighing, the exhausted detective pulled himself out of the Torino and started towards his stairs. Three steps later, he stopped, his back stiffening. Someone was behind him.

Starsky whirled, half-expecting to catch sight of last night's specter.

"Who are you?" Starsky demanded of the three bulky strangers, his left hand moving towards his gun. There was no place the guys could have come from other than his shrubbery.

His reaching hand never got to his gun. Starsky found himself grabbed from either side. Three more hulks appeared from behind the tired cop as a harsh Southern voice answered, "Your teachers, pig. We're gonna learn you not to mess with Santelli!"

In the instant before his attackers gathered their courage, Starsky was able to take out the two holding him quite quickly, dispatching one with a fast elbow to the temple and the other with a kick to the groin. Neither one of those moves would keep his opponents down for any length of time, but at least it cut down the odds some.

However, Starsky's four other attackers were on him instantly.

The next few minutes were a blur of punches and pain. Starsky fought back as best he could, striking out whenever he could wrestle one of his arms free or when one of the gorillas pounding him were foolish enough to get within range of his legs, but with six to one odds, Starsky's defense was soon foundering.

Bright silver stars stabbed his eyes, blotting out Starsky's view of his attackers, as a huge fist bashed into his face. Dazed, the outnumbered cop crashed into the garage door.

Starsky's head hit the ungiving wood with about the same force the fist had bashed him. As Starsky slumped to the ground, he wondered what had happened to the guys holding him up. They'd just let him fall, he cloudily realized. Kick after kick rained down on him, the garage door rattling like there were wild animals banging against it to get out.

Unable to fight back any more, Starsky curled into a tight ball in a futile effort to protect himself. He fought the encroaching darkness with all his might, trying to keep a picture of Hutch in his mind, to remind himself what he was fighting for. If he went down now, there'd be no one left to avenge poor Hutch.

But any kind of concentration was useless with all that yelling and screaming going on. As the darkness finally closed in on him, Starsky wondered if Hutch had felt the same way when he'd died....

*~*~*

The shrieking man landed with a fleshy crunch, becoming as silent as the other dark mounds. Nothing moved in the sudden stillness. No neighbor came to investigate the disturbance, no wind rustled the trees, no cat prowled the darkness, nothing. Even the sole figure still standing remained motionless, his form melding with the surrounding blackness like a statue of shadows.

It seemed his body would dissipate into the night, melt into that darkness. Sometimes he found it comforting to be one with the night, to waft along with the breeze, unsensed by all, to escape into a place where the emptiness inside didn't matter so much. It was the most seductive escape he'd discovered, and for a moment, the solitary figure considered employing it, except....

If he left, he'd be abandoning the unconscious fighter, leaving the outnumbered, now unconscious man defenseless among his attackers.

Cool blue eyes turned to the dark-haired victim's quiet shape, terror icing through his veins at the force of the pull being exerted upon him. His survival instincts screamed run, flee from anything that powerful. Last night he'd given in to those fears, but tonight he hesitated.

Too much was still unclear to just cut and run. Something important was missing. He'd sensed it from the moment of awakening, an incompleteness within himself. At first, he'd ignored its absence, letting the woman with the vaguely familiar face control him. He'd had no choice in the matter. She'd been there when he'd regained consciousness, her cold powers seeming to reach deep into his blood. The idea of forfeiting his will to yet another master reinforced his desire to escape, and yet....

Somehow he knew that type of domination was not a component of the unconscious man's character. The same kind of power was there, the force that continued to draw him to this man's side was stronger than anything the woman had possessed, far stronger than even the ever present ache in his stomach. Last night his fear had given him the impetus to resist, to run, but now it was no longer enough.

He needed to know what continued to draw him here, had to understand what place this man held in his life. He'd seen how easily the fighter had been overpowered by his assailants. It seemed almost impossible that something that fragile could hold such power over him, could own him this way. But own him it did, and his curiosity would no longer allow argument. He would understand.

He turned, still struggling with the mystery of the man's attraction. Something unusual caught and diverted his attention. His nostrils twitched, sensing a change, a new scent. Something he couldn't recall sensing before. But on some level, he recognized it.

Pausing to assimilate the new sensation, he found himself abruptly doubled over. Frantically, he clutched at his abdomen, trying to ride out the cramps, the exquisite agony ripping through his nerves.

That cloying scent in the air... that sweetness, whatever it was, it was that which was provoking his need, setting his blood aflame. The craving twisted his guts, screaming for immediate satisfaction. Whatever that smell was, it was what his body wanted, what it had been crying for since he'd awakened last night.

The hunger swarmed through his consciousness, leaving his mind faint and swimming in the wake of the lust. At any cost, that hunger had to be fed.

He straightened from his doubled over position. The man didn't matter. His puzzle could wait until the need was sated...

No. Iron will overrode the craving. The man could not wait. In his anger and later confusion, he hadn't even ascertained the extent of the victim's injuries. He'd already let the beaten man wait too long.

Shaking, he fought down the ravenous want, his discipline barely mastering it. He was resolved never to allow himself to be controlled that way again. Not by the woman, not by this mysteriously powerful man, not even by his own body. He had freely decided to investigate his connection to the dark-haired stranger. He would do so. Only then would he see about satisfying this need.

The slender body lay like a broken doll in the shadows at the foot of the garage door, still curled in a tight ball. The utter helplessness of the position touched something deep inside him, something that had yet to stir. The man's body appeared so vulnerable—to his enemies, to the night's chill, even to the watcher himself.

Cautiously, he bent to lay a hand on the worn leather jacket, his flattened palm covering several dark holes in the leather that he thought should mean something. A brief picture flashed into his mind of the same body, face down on the tarmac, little visible but those holes in the jacket and the wild tangle of curls above the collar. He realized that the flashback was some kind of memory, a glimpse into another place, another time. Only the pain was the same. Terror like he'd never known. Almost as if hurting this dark stranger was the same as hurting himself.

Just as suddenly as it had come, the vision was gone, leaving a coldness in the pit of his empty stomach.

He gently rolled the unconscious man over. Straightening out the limbs and clothes, he checked for damage. Nothing appeared crushed or broken; although portions of the exposed flesh looked horribly bruised. After checking legs, arms, and torso, he reluctantly dared the face. Its features instantly captured him, as he'd known they would.

Trembling, he gazed down at the chiseled features. More than familiar, everything about them was known, recognized on an instinctive level that was deeper and more abiding than consciousness. The mole under the right eye, the wisps of dark brown curls fringing the forehead, the slope of nose and slant of jaw, the thick black lashes resting against sleep-starved bags beneath the eyes... all separate components of an unnervingly stirring whole.

What was this man to him, that he could exercise such power over him, when even while unconscious the man could draw him to fight in his defense, use him as his agent? Was he his master? Had the woman lied last night about who owned him?

Whatever the stranger was to him, he realized that they could not remain here much longer. He needed a place to think, away from that cloying scent and the fallen bodies. A warmer, softer place for his unconscious charge to recuperate.

His cautious blue gaze turned towards the house, wondering.

Last night, before he'd been discovered watching the place, he'd tried to enter the house, drawn by the same compulsion that had urged him back to this man's side tonight. A force, not seen, but felt, had stopped him. It was similar to the life vibrations that radiated from the unconscious man, the sleeper's presence seemed to permeate the place. Except, in this case, the vibrations had been far more concentrated than those the man was radiating now. Whatever that shield was, it had been completely impenetrable.

At first, he'd thought the barrier an intentional creation of the now-unconscious man, a shield of some sort erected for the express purpose of keeping him out. But in his aimless wanderings, he'd discovered a similar obstruction around all inhabited places, each resonating with the particular vibrations of its residents.

Now, he reached out with his newfound senses, searching for the boundary. Although the house still shimmered with the dark-haired man's life force, there was no longer any resistance to his probe. He hesitated for a second, unsettled by the shield's absence. But he had no place else to take the victim. As he was still unwilling to desert the sleeper, the house was his only alternative.

Decided, he hefted the man into his arms, surprised by how light the bulkier man felt. Lighter than he should be, his arms seeming to recall a heavier weight.

Carefully balancing his armful, he fumbled with the doorknob. It refused to budge when he turned it. Since he'd already crossed the spot at which he'd been stopped by the invisible shield the night before, he knew the door was only a temporary impediment. He pushed harder. A loud snap, then they were in.

A long, rectangular patch of silvery light spilled across the rug, violating the darkness. Inside, all was quiet.

Tensing, he recalled the last structure he'd been free to enter. Death had awaited within, not his own, but if he hadn't fled....

The possibility existed that the man in his arms had been used as bait to lure him to his destruction. Reaching out with preternaturally enhanced senses, he strained for any hint of treachery in the silent house, but there was nothing but shadows. No breathing, no body heat, no live human smell, just the lingering residue resonations of the man that lived here.

He cautiously entered the room, stopping on the other side of the threshold, allowing his eyes to accommodate to the lower light levels as he absorbed his surroundings. The wicker chair, the small horse-drawn wagon sculpture on the bookcase, the bright throw rugs, all caused the same elusive stirrings he experienced whenever he looked at the man's face, that same frustrating sensation of almost knowing what it all meant.

Boxes, piled high in the center of the room. Somehow he knew they didn't belong here. He stared at the contents peeking out of the tops of the open crates. Those things seemed even more familiar than the rest of the furnishings. His eyes lingered on the guitar case resting beside the nearest box, shadows of a forgotten past whispering through him, but never clearly enough to be captured and held onto.

Perhaps that's what the dark-haired stranger and this place were, a part of the past. Last night the woman had told him that he didn't have a past any more, that it would only hurt to understand. But the woman was dead now. He was out here on his own and this place, this man, kept calling him back.

He gently eased his burden onto the sofa, clumsily covering the unconscious man with the rainbow-striped afghan on its back. Not knowing what else to do, he perched on the cushion beside its sleeping owner, looking down into the hauntingly familiar features.

Aside from the bright red trickle dripping from the corner of a split lower lip, the face seemed undamaged, almost peaceful in its slumber. As he stared at its familiar contours, an image swam through his befogged mind. That same face, eyes open and bright with laughter, smiling at him. That was peaceful... the ugly circles beneath those closed eyes and the dark stubble along the chin and cheeks didn't give him the same warm feeling inside as the smoother, relaxed vision. It hurt to see the man this way, he realized.

He reached out to lightly stroke the damp curls back from where they were stuck to the high forehead, letting his hand slide down the side of the face. There had to be something more he could...

"Aooww..."

His hand froze at the low moan, fear tightening his gut as the dark, ravaged face turned his way. The eyelids fluttered, but didn't quite open.

"Hutch...?"

HUTCH. The word was little more than a breath, the sigh of a man still more asleep than awake. Yet, it was enough. That tiny whisper touched the ever-elusive stirring of comprehension, that one word piercing the shroud of what should have been a dead past.

There was no gradual dissolution of the fog blanketing his mind. One instant the veil was there, as irritatingly obdurate as ever, and the next it had vanished. The whispered name, the house, the boxes and their familiar contents—all held meaning now. And, most important, he knew what the man on the couch was to him.

For long moments he stared down at his friend, flooded with remembrances and emotions that were almost too overwhelming to handle.

Slowly, one fleeting image emerged from the deluge—worry. He'd never seen Starsky look this... crushed before, not even when Vic Bellamy's poison had been coiling through his nervous system, slowly eating away his life. Horrified, he wondered what could have devastated his partner so thoroughly that Starsky's misery would show through on is unconscious face. It was certainly more than the physical beating his buddy had taken from those thugs...

Those thugs. Hutch recalled how he'd dispatched them, his confusion mounting. Unarmed, six to one, he should have been slaughtered. Yet, he was the only one who'd risen intact from the battle. What's more, he didn't have a single bruise or scratch to show for it.

The confused blond thought back on the last two days. At the time, the void where identity should have been had cast a bewildering haze over all Hutch had done. Everything was confusing and frightening with no memories of past experience to draw upon, it all seeming strangely unreal.

The restoration of his memory did little to ease his bewilderment. Recent events did not fit in, most of what he remembered of the past two days didn't even make any sense.

There were things he'd seen, even things he'd done, that were blatantly impossible. Yet he remembered them as clearly and vividly as he recalled the last case Starsky and he had worked. How could he have...

Abruptly, he thought of his lack of memory. Amnesia. Somehow, in the flood of remembering, it had never occurred to Hutch to question what had caused him to forget in the first place. His most vivid memories were those of the last two days, or, more specifically, the last two nights, for the sun-lit hours were lost to him. Before that...

There was a gap, a sense of time spent, but not spent.

The confusing, unrealistic memories started after this time of absence. The last thing he was entirely certain about was being sick. The flu. Starsky had wanted to take him to the doctor.

There was more to it than that, though. Hutch started to follow the memory to its conclusion, but drew back from it as strange things started to filter into the safe, normal existence.

Maybe Starsk had been right and it was something more than the flu. He'd been so weak and sick. That night after Starsky left, he'd started hallucinating. The later, weirder memories could all be the result of his fevered mind.

Except there had been no fever. Starsky had confirmed that.

Hutch shoved the unwelcome thought aside, preferring to stay grounded in reality. He could have wandered off that night, hallucinating and sick. But, if so, how had he gotten into his best suit? He'd been wearing sweat pants that night. Surely, he wouldn't have donned his most expensive black suit to go wandering, would he?

Still, the sickness hypothesis could explain many things. His loss of memory, Starsky's depleted condition. His partner had probably worn himself down searching for him. There was no telling how long he'd been missing. Even the gnawing in his stomach could be explained by the sickness explanation.

As if in response to his thought, his tormentor returned, mercilessly rending his innards.

"Awwwoohhh..." The groan was ripped from his soul. Nothing, absolutely nothing had ever hurt like these pains; not getting shot, not the cramps he'd had kicking heroin, or those that had accompanied Callender's plague, not the insidious twistings of botulism through his system, not even the time the car door had blown up, burning the skin off his right hand had hurt like this. Hutch had thought he'd known agony, but he was mistaken.

Eventually, the vise pressing his gut let up a bit. He gasped in relief, his limbs going limp. Instinctively, he knew that he couldn't survive another bout like that. Whatever it took, that need had to be satisfied.

He just wished he knew what was causing the cramps. They were more than normal hunger. The very idea of food made him want to puke. No, what he needed was...

His nostrils twitched and flared as he picked up that same sweet scent that had so aroused his senses outside. Whatever it was, that was what his body craved. The one thing that would sate this hunger, appease those cramps.

Sniffing like a hound on a felon's trail, he followed the olfactory path back to its source. Stunned, he looked down at his own hands.... to the bright, red droplets he'd brushed from Starsky's cheek when he'd laid his partner down.

His puzzled gaze returned to his partner, locking on the thin scarlet stream running from the corner of the brunet's bruised mouth. He watched the shiny rivulet drip down Starsky's chin, then streak speedily down the unconscious man's milk-white throat. The skin was so pale that it almost looked as if the blood had dripped into snow.

Mesmerized by the sight and smell, Hutch leaned in closer, opening his mouth to accommodate the changes taking place inside...

Shaken to the core, he pulled back. His hands flew to his mouth, his index finger scraping against something sharp and long, something that hadn't been there minutes ago or any other time he could remember.

One precious drop of the stolen blood brushed onto Hutch's parched tongue as he explored the four new occupants inside his mouth.

That single droplet's power flared through him, stronger than heroin, stronger than alcohol, stronger even than orgasm. But where those other things had soothed, this vitalized, energizing him with a tingling that was more than intoxicating, that was utterly addictive. He'd needed this, wanted more...

"No!" His shout thundered through the quiet room. This was Starsky—his partner, the man he'd sworn to protect, the other half of his soul. What he wanted, what he'd considered doing....

Numb with horror, Hutch fled the house, so shaken that he used his feet to run. Stumbling down the stairs, he remembered how when he'd wanted to escape when Starsky had caught him watching the house last night, all he'd done was concentrate on his desire to get away and he'd suddenly found himself twenty feet above the ground, battling air currents with arms that were no longer human.

Hallucination? No more so than the sharp fangs protruding from his mouth.

Hutch paused at the foot of the steps, trying to get his bearings. Where was he going? Or, more importantly, where could he go—now?

What...

Something lunged at him. The stench of fresh blood permeated the air, making Hutch's senses swim with unmitigated lust. He was so dizzy he could barely stand. Still, the blond managed to sidestep his attacker, recognizing the man as the one who'd bashed Starsky's head against the garage door.

Almost with inhuman distance, Hutch watched as the thug he'd thrown off with so little effort crashed into the Torino.

The goliath rose again, searching dazedly for Hutch in the darkness.

But the darkness was the blond's ally. He knew how to use it now, hot to mold it to his purposes. The same cold fury Hutch had experienced when he'd seen this gang attacking his partner was back now, along with something else, something darker than the surrounding shadows, something that made that giant of a man shrink back from him.

Eyes wide with horror, the Satanist continued to silently back away from the approaching blond until the thug's backside collided with Starsky's car. Then, a wild whimper emerged from the thug's throat, the embodiment of raw terror.

The huge, panicked brown eyes darted around for escape like a trapped beast's before they settled on Hutch. After a few seconds, the grimace dropped from the thug's ugly features, his face going slack.

Power swelling from him like heat from the sun, Hutch backed his partner's attacker up until the huge man was bent backwards over the Torino's shiny red hood.

Ignoring the disturbingly blank brown gaze, Hutch leaned forward. The man's neck gleamed seductively under the light of the rising moon and Hutch's new teeth ached to be tested...

*~*~*

"Starsky! Come on, Dave, wake up."

The voice wouldn't go away. Starsky moaned, squirming to get away from the coldness pressing his forehead. Even that small movement just about split his skull open.

"I think he's coming around, Captain." This voice was unfamiliar.

"Thanks." The coldness went away. "Starsky, wake up!" This time it was an order.

Slowly, Starsky opened his eyes. The soft glow from the lamp stung.

"Captain?" Starsky asked, trying to focus on the big man beside him. "What happened?"

"Don't you know?" Dobey demanded in his normal gruff tone.

Starsky looked at the three men grouped around his couch: Dobey, a worried looking Huggy Bear, and a skinny red-headed kid with glasses in a white uniform who must be an ambulance attendant, judging by the stethoscope hanging about his neck. All were staring at him as if he held the secret of life.

It took a few seconds for Starsky to garner the strength to move his aching head so that he could look at his superior. Reading only confusion in Dobey's almost paternal gaze, he turned to Huggy, whose quick flash of teeth revealed his relief.

"How you feelin', Starsky?" Huggy Bear asked, bending nearer. His lemon yellow suit was almost painful to Starsky's sensitive eyes.

"Hug, where's Hutch..." the bruised and bewildered detective began. Even as the smile dropped from Huggy's thin features, Starsky remembered. Hutch wasn't here because Hutch was dead. The minute he'd heard Dobey call him 'Dave' he'd known that something awful must've happened.

The captain cleared his throat, moving to stand beside Huggy Bear. "That was quite a bump you had, son. Maybe..."

"No, I'm alright, Cap'n," Starsky insisted.

"Is he?" Dobey demanded of the white clad medic-type still kneeling beside the head of the couch.

The redhead pulled out a small penlight and proceeded to flash the damn thing in Starsky's eyes. After a minute of the torture, the freckle-faced kid drew back. "I don't see any signs of a concussion, but we'd better take some X-rays just to be sure."

"I said I'm fine," Starsky objected. Sitting up to prove his words, he tried no to appear as queasy as he felt. "What happened?" he asked, noticing for the first time the series of red lights flashing behind the window shades and the staticy havoc of several unit radios all chattering away at the same time. Starsky figured from the noise that there had to be at least three, maybe as many as five units parked out front.

"Thanks, young man. That will be all for the moment." Dobey dismissed the medic, then rumbled at his detective. "You tell us what happened. I get an anonymous call on my private line about an officer in need of assistance at your address. When we get here, we find six of Santelli's goons scattered across your driveway, your lock forced and Huggy up here holding a cloth to your head."

The concern behind the big cop's confusion was obvious, but Starsky could sense a growing uneasiness behind it.

What had happened, Starsky wondered, trying to retrace the events of the evening. He remembered the fight. Six to one. He should have been dead. "The creeps were waitin' for me when I got home. They jumped me as I was gettin' outta my car," Starsky slowly explained, trying to sort through the jumbled memories of the confused minutes before he lost consciousness. All he could really recall was the pain.

Some of Dobey's previous words finally caught up with the ruminating detective as Starsky rattled his brain to make sense of the event. Huggy had found him first. His friend probably had a better fix on what had gone down. "Thanks for gettin' me up here, Hug."

"Don't be thankin' me," Huggy Bear denied. "I ain't the one who done it."

"What?" Dobey and Starsky demanded in unison.

The thin barkeep stared at them as if the two cops had taken leave of their senses. "You think I could lug you up them stairs, Starsky? Who do I look like to you, man—Atlas? You were up here when I came. Stretched out nice and cozy on the couch. You even had a wet cloth on your head."

"If you didn't get him up here, then who did?" Dobey questioned, a nervousness in his voice that Starsky couldn't ever recall hearing before.

"It sure wasn't me," Huggy insisted, sounding almost defensive.

Both pairs of dark eyes settled on Starsky, waiting.

"I—I don't know. All I remember is gettin' pushed against the garage doors, banging my head, 'n' fallin' then there was a lot of screaming and..."

And a flash of gold against a darkening sky, pale blondness that Starsky would have recognized anywhere.

But Starsky didn't say that, finishing up with, "...and that's it."

"Then Santelli's men, you weren't the one who took them out?" Dobey asked.

"I managed to hurt one or two of 'em, Cap', not hard enough to keep anyone down."

"Well those men didn't just... yes?" Dobey growled at the skinny medic who'd just re-entered the apartment.

"We're ready to roll, Captain," the redhead announced.

"When can they be questioned?" Dobey asked the technician.

Starsky held his breath. For some reason, he didn't want his captain questioning these particular prisoners.

"They're all pretty banged up," the serious faced youth replied, "but the five we found on the driveway should be coming around soon."

"Five? I thought there were six." Dobey's tone told Starsky that his captain had picked up on the same bewilderment in the freckle-faced kid's attitude that Starsky had detected himself.

Given this slight encouragement, the kid seemed to relax. "It's the damndest thing I've ever seen, Captain. All of them are battered, but that sixth fellow, the guy we found stretched over the red car out there... it's a wonder he could stand at all, let alone menace anyone. We won't be able to tell for sure until we get him to the hospital and run some blood tests on him, but he's got just about the worst case of anemia I've ever come across. The guy must've been sick for weeks."

Dobey nodded, silently taking in the information. "And the others?"

The redhead's thin shoulders shrugged. "As soon as they're conscious, you can question them."

"I'll ride back with you, then," Dobey decided.

After warning Starsky about the dangers of dizziness and double vision, the medic left.

Dobey moved to follow, pausing awkwardly at the foot of the couch to stare down at his injured detective. "Starsky, you see that you get some rest. As soon as you're up to it, I want a report on my desk."

"Sure thing." Starsky gingerly attained the vertical. "Hey, Captain?" he called before the bulky officer could leave. "Who phoned you to tell you I was down?"

It was a question he hadn't thought to ask before. There weren't many people who had the number to Dobey's private line.

Caught off guard, Dobey, an honest man, started to answer with the truth. "It sounded like..." then an expression Starsky had never seen crossed Dobey's face before the big man finished with what they all knew was a glaring falsehood, "...I don't know."

But Starsky had heard the answer his captain hadn't been able to voice.

It sounded like Hutch.

*~*~*

Sunset had been hours ago. Not even a whisper of its colors remained along the western horizon. The storms of the last few days had finally cleared out, yet the night sky was still denied to the city, obscured by the reddish-gray haze of smog that draped L.A. these days like a shroud.

Like everything else, it weighed heavily upon the troubled blond.

Leaning back against the Torino's cool hood, Hutch stared up at the house. He now understood what was wrong with Starsky, knew what devastation it was that had so broken his friend. Starsky didn't think his partner was sick and missing, hadn't worn himself down searching. It wasn't worrying about Hutch that had put those ugly circles under his partner's eyes, it was mourning him.

Detective Sergeant Kenneth Hutchinson was dead. The marker above his empty grave said so.

So tonight the dead man stood before his best friend's house, debating. All the windows were dark now and deserted. Hutch had seen his partner return home soon after sunset. Until well after midnight Starsky had stood guard at that window up there, as if waiting for Hutch.

Probably was, the dead man decided. He knew that Starsky had gotten a good look at him the first night he'd shown up. His partner had even called him by name. And there was no telling how much Starsky had seen of last night's fight.

Hutch couldn't begin to imagine the effect his appearance must have had on his grief-stricken partner.

That guilt was what held him back tonight. Hutch had seen the eager, almost desperate anticipation in those red-rimmed eyes as they'd stared into the darkness tonight, waiting. Starsky looked like he hadn't slept in days. To go to his friend when Starsky was in that condition and ask what had to be asked of him... it would kill Starsky.

But if he didn't do it now, would he be willing to do it later, Hutch fretted. Already he was adjusting. The power and strength in his changed body were exhilarating, no longer alone and frightening. He'd never felt anything like this super-charged existence. The vitality was intoxicating.

But not intoxicating enough to allow the conscientious blond to forget its revolting source. Hutch shuddered with self-loathing, remembering the sticky feel of his victim's blood clumped in the hairs of his mustache. Last night he'd drained a man's blood to achieve this vitality. For all Hutch knew, his victim was dead now.

That vow he'd taken to serve and protect still meant something to the troubled blond. Even scum like that had rights. The right to keep one's blood in one's own veins was a basic precept Hutch wasn't willing to violate. Never again did he want to see that terror in another's eyes, feel his victim's fear... feel this darker part of himself rejoice in that fear. No, never again.

That was why he was here, why he had to go through with this now, before he changed his mind, while he still had conscience and soul enough for it to matter.

Cloaked in shadows earlier, standing witness to his partner's lonely vigil, Hutch had decided to simply wait here for sunrise and let nature take its course. With Starsky for company, he'd thought he'd have the courage to do it. But Starsky had deserted the window before morning had come. Hutch knew that alone, he would flee the morning light, would fight to survive. It was his nature now.

There was nobody else he could ask to help him, nobody besides Starsky whom Hutch could be certain he wouldn't turn on in that last desperate struggle for life.

And, so, Hutch thought, that settled it. There was no choice but the one that had brought him here.

Resolved, he entered his partner's house. Where the smog above was thick and heavy, the mist that carried him inside was fresh and clean, light as moonbeams. Without a sound, Hutch reassembled in the corner of Starsky's bedroom where the shadows were thickest.

This time it took him a few less seconds than usual to adjust to the abrupt change of locale. With keener sight, Hutch stared around the dark bedroom, assimilating. All of his senses seemed preternaturally sharper, clearer. Though it was pitch-black in the room, Hutch could see as easily as though it were high noon. He could smell Starsky in the room, the way he might have once picked up a woman's expensive perfume.

While waiting outside, Hutch was worried about finding his partner asleep. The prospect of waking his friend hadn't appealed to him. But Starsky wasn't even in the bedroom.

Hutch felt through the darkness for him. Not in the kitchen or living room, either. Finally, he sensed that vibrant presence in the black recesses of the bathroom.

Hutch let the shadows temporarily absorb him as his partner entered the room. Although the blond was certain his friend couldn't see him, he tensed as those bloodshot eyes rested on the exact spot he was standing. Sixth sense, or was Starsky just sensitized to his presence? Whatever it was, the accuracy was uncanny.

The naked hope and longing that Hutch read in those over-tired eyes broke something deep inside him—his resolve.

After a few breathless moments, Starsky shook his head, as if dismissing whatever sensation had stopped him on his way back to bed. The grieving detective's knuckles, bruised from last night's fight, clutched the folds of his robe tighter around him, as if cold.

Starsky was wearing the royal blue, velour robe Hutch had given his friend last Christmas. Usually, its vivid hue was a perfect complement to Starsky's skin tone, but his partner just looked sickly pale bundled in its warm folds.

"You really are crazy," Starsky said to himself.

The despair vibrated through Starsky's words ripped at the blond's heart.

Starsky sank down on his bed, his back turned to his unseen visitor. It was a minute before Hutch saw the wide shoulders slump and begin to shake. Then he heard the wracking sobs and knew that Starsky was crying... mourning his partner's death.

At the emergence of those salt-scented tears, Hutch's determination deserted him. His revolting attack on that thug in Starsky's driveway last night had made him vow that the innocent would never pay the price for his survival again, but who was more innocent than this grieving man, who'd had a piece of his heart ripped from him.

Starsky would pay harder for this second death than ever he did for the first, and that one looked like it still might destroy Hutch's friend. Even to spare his future victims, Hutch couldn't inflict this kind of guilt on his buddy.

There was only one thing he could do—get the hell out of here and let Starsky grieve and heal in peace.

But he'd left it too long. The moment Hutch heard Starsky cry out his name, he knew he was doomed. The blond's feet were cemented in place as if they'd taken root, his body stuck in solid state as if turned to wood.

"Hutch?" The pleading voice cracked, repeating the name in a strangled gasp. Starsky's fingers dug into the velvety folds of his robe, gripping it convulsively, pulling at it as if he were squeezing something infinitely precious to his chest.

As if that robe were me, Hutch realized, remembering a garbage strewn alley where his poisoned partner had clung to him much the same way.

This was misery, pure and unexaggerated. The private struggle of a heart trying to sustain a loss too severe to be borne.

"Hutch, don't leave me! Haunt me forever, but don't leave me alone here, babe...." Starsky sounded as if he were talking to him, begging him as Hutch had never heard this proud man beg in his life, tears and sobs all mingled in one heart-breaking plea.

Turn away and leave now, common sense insisted. For Starsky's sake, walk away. Don't lay this burden on those already shaky shoulders...

A strange calm settled over Hutch as he prepared himself for what must be done.

*~*~*

"Hutch," Starsky choked on the name and buried his tears in the blue fabric covering his elbows. The tears had been denied too long. They would have their way with him now. No fantasies culled from his desperate imagination would rescue him tonight.

Starsky remembered the long, horrible nights that he'd cried for Teri. In retrospect they didn't seem quite so terrible now. As often as not, another's tears had kept his company. Hutch had cried with him over Teri's loss, and after a time, the tears had stopped. Not that the hurt had become any less painful, just a little bit easier to bear, with Hutch there. Somehow Starsky doubted if these tears would ever stop.

"Starsk?"

The gentle whisper echoed through his imagination.

Oh, God, now he was having auditory hallucinations in addition to the visual specters. Well, he'd asked to be haunted, Starsky acknowledged with a shudder. He should have known better than to tempt his failing sanity.

Knowing he was really losing it, he buried his face deeper in his sleeve.

"Starsky?" There was something in that voice this time, an uncertainty that Starsky knew his comfort-hungry mind would not have put there. Hutch sounded like he'd go away if he didn't get some type of response.

Starsky whirled to face this ghost or phantasm, half expecting to see nothing but an empty corner.

Ice pried its way up his spine, shaking his body almost as fiercely as the illusion was shaking his mind.

Not taking his gaze from what he thought he saw standing in his corner, Starsky blindly reached for the lamp on the night table. His fingers closed on the switch, flicking it on. His specter didn't flee at the barrage of naked light like any horror movie denizen would have done. Instead, this fantasy of his over-stressed mind stood blinking at him, much the same as Hutch would have done.

Starsky's first, ludicrous thought was that he'd never seen his partner look so rumpled. The dark black suit they'd... buried Hutch in was incredibly wrinkled, soiled in several places. There was no sign of the tie. It had been one of Starsky's own, his blue 'court' tie. He still didn't know why he'd brought it to the undertaker's instead of one of Hutch's own, more expensive ties, except that he'd known his partner had always liked that one. The white dress shirt was open at the neck and looked like it had been worn for a week—which it had.

Starsky stared dumbly at this vision, absently noting the unkempt hair. The golden tangle spilling over Hutch's shoulders just ached for a comb.

For some reason, Starsky was reluctant to look at the face too closely; perhaps afraid that too thorough an examination would reveal a fake. He knew only too well that some of the sickos they'd busted weren't above this kind of cruel prank.

But he could only stare at the burial suit for so long. Eventually, his gaze moved upwards.

There was no mistaking that strong, lethally handsome, Nordic-featured face. Hutch. Everything was perfect—the high intelligent brow, the strong jaw, the moles on his throat, the pucker between those fair eyebrows, the full mouth.

Hutch's complexion was pale and ashen, almost as white as the crinkled shirt. Despite the pallor, his partner looked healthier than the last time Starsky had seen him alive. The blond's brow was creased with worry, Hutch's eyes deep and troubled, but Starsky could sense a vitality in this motionless figure that had been absent from his sick friend. Looking at his friend, it almost seemed to Starsky as if his partner had gotten back something that had been stolen from him.

Starsky took all of this in within seconds. As the shock wore off and the vision still held true, he realized something else. Hutch, or his ghost, or whatever it was before him was nervous, almost frightened.

Most men when confronted by a spirit, even that of someone very dear to them, would instinctively withdraw, if not run in terror. But Starsky took a step forward, more afraid of the ghost's leaving than its staying.

"H-Hutch?" he hesitantly questioned.

It was the ghost who took an instinctive step back.

Starsky saw something like panic shoot through his friend's eyes. He got the impression that whatever this likeness of Hutch was, it was no better equipped at handling this scene than he was himself.

Starsky halted his advance and tried for a smile, finally managing a shaky facsimile of his usual grin. "Ain't I the one that's s'pposed to be scared of you?"

Hutch relaxed a bit at that. "Aren't you?"

"Some." In truth, Starsky was shaking down to his bones. He felt cold all over, like he might pass out any second, but he didn't admit that. "Hutch, you... you're dead..."

And once again, there it was, that awful truth he just couldn't get away from. Except through insanity.

Starsky felt the tears start flowing down his cheeks again. None of this was real. That was why the ghost had backed away from him. His deranged mind wasn't going to allow his senses to prove its creation's insubstantiality.

A second later, Starsky felt a tentative touch on his arm, then an even lighter one on his shoulder. His eyes snapped open to stare into worried blue that was more familiar to his soul than his own reflection.

"Don't, Starsk, please don't cry. I—I'm sorry. I never should've come here, never should've...."

But Starsky didn't hear a word of the apology. His entire being was fixed on the warmth of that touch. Solid.

The hands touching him were real.

Relief swamped through Starsky, his heart leaping in joy.

The next words that did penetrate his consciousness were, "...I'll leave. I promise I'll never come back to bother you again..."

"No!" Starsky cried out as he understood what Hutch was saying. Flinging himself into the ghost's arms, Starsky burrowed his wet face in the damp, grimy shirt that smelled of Hutch sweat, his arms locking around his partner's waist for dear life.

Hutch stiffened in his embrace, obviously startled. After a few moments, the tension ebbed from the long body and Starsky felt himself clutched in return with equal desperation.

"You—you are real," Starsky marveled, "I'm—I'm not going crazy."

"You're not crazy; although you have every right to be." Hutch sounded angry, but not at his partner. Starsky had heard that protective tone far too many times to make that mistake. "You should never have been put through this."

"I thought you were dead," Starsky confessed, unable to understand why Hutch wasn't. He'd found his partner's body himself. There'd been no vital signs whatsoever. His own lungs had nearly burst while trying to breathe life back into the mouth of an already cold corpse, a corpse that Starsky had later seen buried.

Every muscle in Hutch's body seemed to turn to stone. The blond pulled back from him and took several steps away. Pale blue eyes dropped to the floor and rested there a moment before returning to Starsky. When Hutch looked back at him, his gaze was frightened. "I was... am."

"Then... then you are haunting me." The prospect didn't really scare him. At least he had Hutch back.

"Why the hell would I haunt you?" Hutch asked. Visibly shocked, the tall blond sounded his normal exasperated self.

Starsky was unable to meet those trusting eyes in his guilt. Of course, his partner wouldn't blame him. "You—you were... are my partner. I shoulda taken better care of you. If I'da made you go to the doctor, you'd still be..." Given the reality of the body he'd just hugged, Starsky couldn't complete the thought. He didn't understand it, but Hutch was alive. Somehow, his partner must have still been alive when they'd buried him. He'd heard about trances that were so much like death that even a doctor would have trouble discerning the difference. But there'd been an autopsy and...

"None of this is your fault," Hutch firmly insisted. "Even if you'd taken me to the doctor when you wanted to, it wouldn't have made any difference. I think it was already too late by then."

"Too late? What are you talkin' about, Hutch?"

"I'm no ghost, Starsk. I only wish that it were that easy. At least then I wouldn't be a danger..."

"Huh?"

"Starsk, do you remember Nadasay?"

At first there was no connection. Then the name clicked. Nadasay had been the perp in a case they'd worked three, maybe four years back, a tortured madman who'd believed that he was a.....

"Yeah, what of it?" Starsky asked, but deep down he already knew.

"I..."

"There ain't no such thing," Starsky interrupted before his partner could say the word and give the idea substance. "You said so yourself."

"Ahh, babe..." Sympathy softened Hutch's eyes, their blue unbearably bright as they swam in liquid silver that never dropped from the corners, as though Hutch, too, had spent the last four days fighting tears. "I didn't believe in it either, but there isn't anything else I can be."

It was then that Starsky noticed that Hutch was shaking even worse than he was. The disheveled blond looked as scared as Starsky felt, lost, too. There was a plea in his partner's eyes that begged for reassurance, for a denial of the reality they found themselves trapped in, a look that cried, Please tell me that I'm wrong, buddy. Make it not be true.

But Starsky was standing here talking to a dead man; a dead man who was still wearing the clothes they'd buried him in.

What kind of reassurance could he give his partner? Hutch was supposed to be dead in a grave twenty miles away, but he wasn't. The blond could be a ghost, except Starsky had touched him. Of course, the most likely explanation of all was that Starsky himself was crazy and imagining all of this.

Starsky's gaze flickered around the room, searching for something that would prove the reality of the situation. It stopped on the mirror above the dresser. His own image was reflected in its right corner, bloodshot eyes and all. Hutch was standing two feet away from him, closer to the mirror and at a better angle with its shiny surface, but the majority of the mirror's field just reflected back the empty bedroom.

Starsky's breath caught in his chest when he realized that both the lamp and the painting behind Hutch were clearly reflected in the mirror, even though the tall blond's body should have blocked them out. Starsky felt the blood drain out of his face as he stared at the empty space where Hutch should have been.

"Starsk, what's wrong?" Hutch's eyes followed the direction of Starsky's shocked stare.

Slowly, the unkempt blond moved to the mirror, leaning over the dresser until his face was pushed right up against the surface of the glass. Starsky could see the cloudy sheen of breath that condensed on the surface of the mirror in front of his partner's nose and mouth, but there was no trace of Hutch's face.

"Weird, isn't it?" The lightness was forced. Hutch was trying to sound casual, but Starsky could hear the nervousness beneath it. "I went back to my apartment last night. I didn't know if I'd be allowed in there at first, but... well, I tried to shave and..." The words died as Hutch stood there staring into the empty looking glass.

The numbness was wearing off. The rational side of Starsky's mind kept telling him that an hallucination wouldn't show up in his mirror any faster than a... vampire would, but he ignored the caution. Hallucination, ghost, or vampire, Hutch was upset.

Starsky walked up behind his partner, laying his hand on a very solid arm. "Come away from that." Hutch allowed himself to be led to the bed. "Sit down," Starsky gently ordered.

Hutch sank down as if unable to support his weight any more.

Starsky shivered as the pale face turned up to him. There was misery in those bewildered eyes, and another emotion, something very innocent.

"Starsk, aren't you afraid of me?"

"No." And it was true. He didn't fear Hutch. Gazing into those uncertain eyes, all he could do was hurt with his friend. Starsky sat down a foot away and turned to face his partner. "Hutch, how...?"

The first hint of color touched Hutch's cheeks. They flamed a bright, healthy red, the blush all the deeper for the lack of color in the surrounding, near ivory face.

"Angie." There was no emotion in Hutch's voice as he said his latest girlfriend's name, but there was something terrible, something icy in the blond's suddenly hard eyes that frightened Starsky. He'd never seen Hutch hate quite so coldly before. "She... the first night she stayed with me, it was... like nothing I'd ever felt before..."

Even now, Starsky could see the wonder in his friend's eyes. He remembered how Hutch had looked when his partner had first told him about Angie, sort of like when Hutch had tried to describe what he'd felt for Gillian to Starsky. Only with Gillian, it had been the girl herself, with Angie it was the sex.

But that glow was gone now as Hutch continued with his hollow recitation. "The next morning when I woke up, she was gone—of course. I didn't really remember... all that we'd done. All I knew was that it was kinky. The details were all pretty cloudy and I felt like hell. That was when I started getting... sick. I didn't think I'd see her again—Hell, sex like that can't get any hotter—but she called later that night and... and you know the rest. Every time I'd see her, I'd feel a lot worse in the morning, but I never connected the two. Guess she didn't want me to."

Pulling his robe tighter around him, Starsky shivered under a sudden chill. He was cold, but not from the night's temperature. His Slavic grandmother used to tell him stories like this when he was a kid. But they were just stories, fairy tales made up to frighten little children into being good.

"You mean she's out there roamin' the streets, lookin' for prey, makin' other... like her?" Once again Starsky thought of Nadasay. He tried to remember if there were any murders with that particular MO lately. Other than Hutch's, he couldn't recall any, but the way he'd been these past few days an entire neighborhood could have been taken out without his knowing.

Starsky looked to the darkness beyond his window, suddenly scared.

"No," Hutch replied, "she was careful. She didn't let the corpses... develop."

"But what about you?"

"Angie said that I reminded her of someone, someone I think she wanted to get back at very badly. She was there when I woke up to claim me as her... she was just there." Hutch was trembling, the words coming faster, "Angie said that I didn't have a past any more, and I couldn't remember..."

"Hutch, we gotta find her and...."

And what? Drive a stake through her heart like in those old Christopher Lee movies?

"Don't worry about her, Starsk," Hutch advised, obviously trying to calm him.

Or was he? Another chill, deeper even than the one Starsky had felt that first night he'd looked out his window and seen Hutch down on the street staring back up at him, shook him. Was Hutch trying to protect her?

"But she's...." Starsky lamely protested.

"Angie's never going to bother us or anyone else again." Something in that dark promise, uttered in the tone of a solemn vow, precluded questioning.

Starsky was afraid to ask, terrified of the answer he might receive. He stared levelly at Hutch, feeling as though a large section of his partner had just been closed off to him.

It was a new sensation. They'd had secrets before, but they were their secrets, shared with each other. Hutch was keeping something from him. Starsk felt cut off; yet, at the same time, he wasn't really certain he wanted to know. He could push Hutch for more information. Starsky knew that he had the power to make his friend tell him the truth, only....

"Okay," Starsky agreed, watching the relief flood Hutch's features. It was only then that he realized that a test had been going on as to whether he was willing to accept Hutch unconditionally.

They sat in silence for a few minutes with this new distance between them. Finally, Starsky asked, "What are we gonna do now? I mean, everyone thinks you're dead. You can't come back to work..."

"I came here to ask you for your help," Hutch said slowly, an evaluating look in his eyes.

"Of course, I'll help you. You gotta ask?" he answered hotly, angry that Hutch would question his loyalty this way. When he'd cooled down a bit, Starsky asked in a more reasonable tone, "What can I do?"

The gaze that settled upon his was tortured, Hutch's expression more tormented than when he was kicking Forrest's junk. "I want you to free me."

"Huh?" The plea in those beautiful eyes was going right through Starsky's soul, but for the life of him, he had no idea as to what his friend was talking about.

"You're the only one who can do it, Starsk. The only one I know I won't hurt. I've got to be stopped before..."

At last he understood what Hutch was asking of him. A shocked "No!" was all he could manage. Though the denial roared through his mind, the actual utterance could barely qualify as a whisper.

Hutch seemed prepared for this resistance. The blond's horrid answer was calm, couched in the patient tone Hutch always used when reasoning Starsky out of his stubbornness. "It has to be done. You know deep down that's true. You swore to protect the citizens of this city, and right now, I'm a threat to them. I didn't want to have to ask you to do this, Starsk, but you're the only one who can."

"NO! Are you crazy? You come back from the dead to ask me to kill you again? I won't do it!" he shouted.

For some reason, that seemed to hit Hutch really hard. An odd mixture of guilt and regret filled the handsome Nordic features for a moment, only to be overshadowed by determination. "You've got to. You know what I am, what must be done."

Starsky mutely shook his head. It wasn't merely a matter of unwillingness, but one of incapacity. Starsky doubted if he'd have been able to do what Hutch asked of him if some slobbering monster wearing this face lunged for his jugular at first sight. The thought of... doing it to his soft-spoken partner made him physically sick.

Hutch bounced from the bed and stalked to the window. For a terrible moment, Starsky feared his partner was leaving. But the tall blond only paused there, staring down at Starsky's dark driveway, seemingly at a loss. When Hutch turned around, the strong features were not nearly as strong, Hutch's entire face a mask of misery and frustration.

"We'll work it out, Hutch. We'll find a way."

"You still don't understand, Starsk. I'm not what I was. I...."

"You're my partner," Starsky finished when Hutch seemed to falter.

"Well, last night your partner killed a man, buddy, drained the blood from his body right there on the hood of your Torino. Now do you see why you've got to help me?"

A sick dread filled Starsky. Even last night he'd known that there was nothing wrong with that huge Southern guy when the creep had attacked him. His anemia, or whatever had put the Satanist down, had happened after the thugs had knocked Starsky unconscious. Hearing Hutch talk so bluntly about how the creep had gotten his anemia shook him. It was hard to conform that lurid fact with his understanding of his partner's character.

For some reason, the picture of Hutch in Tommy Marlowe's dingy hotel room kept flashing through Starsky's mind. Was the person standing before him the same, gentle Hutch who'd comforted his girlfriend's lunatic attacker when the kid had gone blind? Hutch said that he wasn't the same any more, and last night's events did seem to back up that claim.

But even though Hutch might have put that Satanist creep in the hospital, the resurrected blond had also saved Starsky from six men bent on murdering him. That was totally in character for his partner. This vampiric Hutch had carried him to safety and waited until help arrived, just like his Hutch would do.

Starsky clung to those last few thoughts. Although they didn't blot out the former, unpleasant subject, they did help Starsky come to a decision. Whatever Hutch had become physically, his partner was still the same man inside where it counted.

Once again, Starsky shook his head in silent denial of Hutch's request for... help. Almost apprehensive, he watched his partner's eyes fill with frustrated fury.

"God damn it, Starsky, you've gotta! I killed a man last night. Doesn't that mean anything to you?"

"He's not dead," Starsky informed the worried man before him, not missing the naked relief that filled the haunted eyes. More than anything, that reassured him that his partner was the same inside. "Even if he were dead, we've both killed to protect each other before."

Hutch's level stare made him nervous. There was a power behind it, an intensity that Starsky had never felt before. Hutch had always had beautiful eyes, but now they were... compelling. Starsky couldn't have looked away at that moment if his life had depended on it.

"I didn't do it to protect you. I did it because I was hungry," Hutch said with chilling simplicity.

The honesty in those eyes was unnerving. It was almost as if Hutch were daring him to accept this too.

"You'd'a had to be, to choose him," Starsky muttered, remembering the ugly, vicious features of the man who'd led the attack on him.

Hutch appeared shocked, but let the comment pass. "The longer you wait, the harder it's gonna be, and more people are going to be in danger. You don't seem to understand. Last night's... snack wasn't a one shot deal, Starsk. Do you want to risk someone else's life just to keep me alive? I... I live on blood now."

"There are other kinds of blood," Starsky sullenly argued, ignoring that last question, about risking other lives. In his heart, he knew the truth. What wouldn't he risk for Hutch?

Only slowly did Starsky's own words sink in. He watched his partner's expression alter as the blond considered.

There were other types of blood. Starsky remembered reading how vampire bats in South America fed on cow's blood. Maybe...

"Hutch, it could work." For the first time that night, Starsky was arguing out of something besides sheer stubbornness. "Tomorrow morning, I'll go to the butcher's. We could try it. I know you never heard of a vampire... feeding on anything but human blood, but those're just horror stories. A vampire really wouldn't be so scary if he were eatin' more or less the same thing the little kids were. We could try it, Hutch, and see. Couldn't we?"

For a long moment, Hutch regarded him, his expression lost somewhere between humoring Starsky and hope, but then sadness welled up in those incredibly evocative eyes. Looking defeated, Hutch spoke very gently, as if unwilling to hurt him. "That's fine for tomorrow, Starsk, but what about tonight? I'm hungry now. It's not like skipping a meal, partner. When I don't... feed, it hurts like... like heroin withdrawal. When the pain gets bad like that... that's when my control slips. That's when I'm... dangerous to be around."

Hutch was telling him it wasn't going to work. Not that the plan itself was bad. Starsky could tell that Hutch had been interested, that animal blood was something he hadn't considered. It might even work, if only....

Time. They needed time to work this out. But Hutch needed blood now.

The solution came as suddenly and as clearly out of Starsky's subconscious as his last suggestion had. Only, he didn't blurt this one out immediately. Starsky realized that he was in a position to provide them with the time they needed. If he had the guts to do it.

It was a mighty big if to get past. The very thought of volunteering his own blood made his testicles crawl in horror.

Yet, what other choice had they? Starsky could sit here and not mention it, with cold sweat dripping down his spine and his stomach doing flip flops. He could just sit here and wait for Hutch to leave, never to return again. He knew that Hutch wouldn't take what he needed anywhere else. From what Hutch had told him about his amnesia, the attack on Santelli's man last night had been pure reaction. Now that the blond was back in full control of his faculties, there'd be no other assaults. And without that blood.... Hutch would die.

It was as simple and complicated as that.

Taking a deep breath, Starsky sought to master his racing heart. If he was going to do this, he had to play it cool. Every instinct he owned was telling him that Hutch wasn't going to take to this plan.

"There's a way around that," Starsky said levelly.

"Huh?" Hutch questioned in a preoccupied tone. The vampire's thoughts seemed to have wandered in the silence following Hutch's dooming declaration of need. "What way? What are you...?"

Starsky watched his partner read the tacit invitation in his eyes. For a second, Hutch's face went totally blank, going chalk white with shock, then his features twisted in disgust and Hutch was backing away from him.

"No!" The blond hit the wall beside the window, then stood with his back pressed against it, his eyes wide and frightened as a trapped animal's.

The ludicrous aspect of the situation briefly passed through Starsky's mind. Anyone observing them would take Hutch for the intended victim. With his back to the wall like that and his eyes wild and scared, the tattered blond certainly looked the part.

"You gotta. I don't like this any more than you do, but you know there ain't no other way."

"There is." Hutch seemed really desperate now. "You could help me."

"I am trying to help you," Starsky protested, calmly, reasonably.

"No, you..."

"I'm trying to keep you alive!"

Starsky's persistence seemed to break through what little control Hutch had left. The cry that answered him showed his friend's naked hurt, the absolute revulsion Hutch felt for his present state of being. "I'm not alive. Don't you understand that? I'm dead.... UNDEAD... a ghoul that feeds on human blood. The only way you can really help me is to free me. Now, before I hurt anyone else. I—I haven't even got a reflection any more. You know what that means, Starsk. No soul. You've got to..."

"Stop it!" Starsky ordered from his seat on the bed. He ached to go to Hutch, to hold him until all the horror seeped from his partner's mind, but he sensed that any movement on his part would only upset his partner more. Hutch was panicked, ready to bolt. "I ain't gonna kill you, so quit askin'. You ain't no ghoul..."

"Last night..."

Starsky cut off Hutch's interruption before his friend could go into the gory details again. "Last night you did what you had to do. That don't make you no ghoul, just...hungry."

"The mirror..." The hysteria was gone from Hutch's voice now, but the hollowness that had replaced it was just as alarming.

"It don't mean a thing," Starsky insisted, still shaken by that unnatural aberration. "If you didn't have a soul anymore, we wouldn't be standing here arguing about this. I'd be dead and you wouldn't care."

"How can you be so sure?"

The same fear he'd seen in Hutch's eyes before was back, but now Starsky understood it. Hutch was afraid of himself, of the thing he'd become.

Starsky took a moment to reply, letting his silence rivet Hutch's full attention on him. When Starsky spoke again, it was with complete conviction. "I'd know. If you were different inside, if you were... any of the things you say you are, I'd feel it."

"What if the change is a slow one, a gradual disintegration...?"

What if it were? Starsky nervously considered the possibility. Could there be a valid reason behind Hutch's frantic pleas for help? Maybe his partner could feel himself slipping away into the evil thing he'd described.

Starsky searched those gentle, light blue eyes, looking for a monster lurking in their depths, but he found only his Hutch—sweet-natured, scared... and hungry. For the first time, Starsky saw the need there. But oddly enough, he wasn't frightened by it.

After a tension-fraught pause, Starsky answered his partner's question about a gradual decline into evil. Aware that if he revealed any sign of doubt, Hutch would be off on that self-destructive spiel again, Starsky filled his heart with a conviction born of years of daily interaction with this man. "Even if it was gradual, you still wouldn't be able to hide it from me. I'd know."

Hutch's eyes bored into his soul with that new, terrifying intensity. "Yes, you'd know," the blond eventually conceded.

"Then you'll go along with me?" Starsky's words seemed to strike his partner with the force of physical projectiles, Hutch's body snapping into a strangely defensive pose in response to them.

"Have—have you any idea what you're getting into?" the reluctant vampire finally whispered.

"Yeah."

"And it doesn't bother you?"

"It'll keep you alive." Starsky gave his partner the truth, aware that Hutch would know anything else to be a lie. "That's all I'm interested in."

"But..."

"Look," Starsky interrupted, not sure if his courage would hold up to too many more objections, "if you were in a car accident or something, and needed blood, you'd accept a transfusion, wouldn't you?"

"We're not the same blood type," Hutch relentlessly reminded.

"Would you just forget that for a minute?!" Starsky demanded, totally exasperated.

"It isn't as... refined as a transfusion, Starsk. I appreciate the offer, but..."

"But nothin'! I know I ain't gonna enjoy this, Hutch. I'm not expecting to, but..."

"But you're still offering it to keep me alive. I—I don't wanta hurt you, Starsk. I don't want you to be afraid of me. If I...."

"There ain't nothin' that scares me as much as the thought of goin' on and never seein' you again. I lasted six days without you, but I don't think I'd'a made it for much longer, and I sure as hell couldn't live knowin' you went off and died 'cause I was too scared to help you." It hurt to recall the haze of unrelieved misery in which he'd passed the last six days since Hutch had died. The thought of going back to that horrid half-life was unbearable. "If a little blood is all it takes to keep you here..."

The words died into an awkward silence, but at least Hutch no longer looked like was going to back out the window. It took a few moments for Starsky to realize he'd won.

With that stunning acknowledgment came the fear. He'd won. Hutch would live... on his blood.

Had his partner moved towards him at that moment, Starsky knew he probably would have freaked out of the same terror Santelli's men had experienced last night when the tall blond had moved for them. It was an instinctive revolt, impossible to subdue with cold reason.

But Hutch stood his ground, waiting. For a while, the blond watched the struggle that Starsky knew must be showing on his face, then Hutch's gaze dropped to the carpet.

It was only then that Starsky realized how much his uncertainty was hurting his friend. Despite the hunger that must have been gnawing at him, Hutch had continuously refused Starsky's help—out of reluctance to frighten him. Starsky knew that his partner would die rather than scare or hurt him in any way. And now that Starsky had won his arguments, the first thing he presented his partner with was the terror Hutch had so feared.

Angered by his own weakness, Starsky took a deep breath and called his friend. "Hutch?"

The fair head slowly rose, but Hutch didn't meet his eyes. It took Starsky some time to place the expression on the pale face. He'd so rarely seen shame there.

"I can feel your fear," Hutch whispered, the soft utterance tinged with agony.

"Hutch, look at me." He honestly didn't expect his words to have any effect, but Hutch obeyed almost as if he had no choice. At Starsky's request, the blond's eyes caught his own, holding his gaze with such force that Starsky didn't want to, or maybe couldn't, look away.

Starsky could feel the raw power behind that stare. He had the feeling that if his partner wanted to, this altered Hutch could take his fear away just by looking at him.

Yet, the long-limbed blond seemed totally oblivious to his potential. Hutch's gaze was ambivalent, filled with fear and hunger, the underlying power as unasserted as it could possibly be. But, even untapped, Starsky found himself drowning in that intensity. It took a conscious effort for him to find his voice. When he did speak, it came out as a hoarse rasp, "Come here, Hutch."

For a moment, those eyes bored even deeper into Starsky, leaving the trembling cop feeling incredibly exposed, like his deepest secrets had been bared to the light of day. Then Hutch took a tentative step towards him.

The thunderous roar of Starsky's heart seemed to rattle his entire body as Hutch crossed to the bed.

"I can hear your heart pounding," Hutch said from over three feet away. "Are you sure about this, Starsk?"

"I want you to live," he whispered, too scared for bravado now.

Hutch nodded and sat down beside him.

Starsky's blood turned to ice as he saw his friend lean forward. For a horrible second, he thought Hutch was going to do it, just like that, with no forewarning. But the blond only grabbed the spare pillow and reached around Starsky to place it on the one behind the frozen cop. He relaxed a little as Hutch drew back, but he could still feel every muscle in his body, quivering.

"Lie back," Hutch gently ordered, standing so that Starsky would have room to swing his legs onto the bed.

Starsky obeyed without question, feeling himself go numb with terror. Every breath was a struggle. He didn't seem to be able to relax enough to get his lungs to expand to their full capacity, making his breathing shallow and slightly frantic. But he was determined not to fail Hutch now.

As the blond settled himself lightly beside his hip, Starsky's gaze shifted back to that familiar face. Hutch still appeared reluctant, but no longer dead-set against the idea. The strong brow was creased in thought.

Starsky had the impression that his partner was fiercely debating something in the silent depths of his mind. After a moment, Hutch's long hand reached out to cup Starsky's beard-stubbled cheek, the fingers of his other hand moving to outline the nervous cop's facial features.

"Relax, I won't hurt you. This is me, Hutch. Just... try to trust me? Okay?" Hutch's voice, promising. The only time Hutch had ever really hurt him was when he'd died.

"'kay." Starsky took a deep breath and tried to comply.

In the closeness, his overstrained senses had no trouble picking up the other's scent. It was the same reassuring constant, stronger perhaps than usual, like after a camping trip or non-stop case, but undeniably Hutch.

Slightly relaxed by this new confirmation, he opened his eyes and looked at his partner's face. Those weren't the features of or the expression of a predator. There was too much worry and guilt there. Starsky was glad to see most of it disappear as his partner noticed his open eyes.

"I'm okay now," Starsky assured, finding a smile for the reluctant vampire, who was so terrified of hurting him that Hutch could barely move.

For the first time, Hutch's stroking hand slipped to Starsky's neck, brushing over the dark-haired man's skin with the same casual caress that had charted his facial features.

The results of that touch were anything but casual.

Starsky felt that soft stroke jolt through him, the tingle shooting straight to his toes like raw electricity. Starsky knew that he must have been waiting for that touch, unconsciously dreading it. But his response wasn't one of terror. The nervous bolt that streaked through him was more akin to excitement. Almost of its own accord, he arched into the touch, his head tilting back on the pillow to expose more of his throat.

A sharp intake of breath was Hutch's only response.

"Stop shaking," the blond murmured, bending closer to Starsky's neck.

Starsky valiantly tried to stop, but Hutch's touch only made him quiver all the harder. He knew that his partner had started that stroking to calm his fears, but the cause of his shudders had long passed from terror into something more.

"I c-can't!" His exclamation ended in a gasp as he felt Hutch's dry lips skim the length of his Adam's apple, the way a lover might. Hutch's heat, the moist breath on his neck, it was too sensual to ignore. Starsky tried to overlook what was happening, but his whole body was tingling.

His moan of protest was instinctive as Hutch pulled back from him to stare down into his face.

Starsky was temporarily confused by his partner's dispirited eyes, then understanding hit him, abrupt as a cold wave at the beach. Hutch still thought he was scared of him.

"I ain't scared, babe," Starsky protested.

"You're shaking like a leaf," the blond shot back, his guilty gaze sliding away, as if too shamed to meet Starsky's.

"It ain't fear," the former New Yorker insisted.

"Right," the vampire snorted.

"Hutch, please... look at me," Starsky pleaded, his cheeks warming.

It was amazing how vulnerable the big galoot looked, Starsky thought as that trepidant gaze finally met his own. "It isn't fear," he repeated, almost afraid himself at what Hutch's response might be to what he was feeling at the present moment. "Feels good...maybe too good. You know what I'm sayin'?"

Hutch's eyes widened in surprise. The brilliant blue gaze shot down the supine cop's body to confirm Starsky's claim.

The brunet tensed, apprehension gripping every muscle he owned. This was a hell of an embarrassing development. But after six days of mourning and missing this man, Starsky was hypersensitive to his partner's presence. He'd gone rock hard almost the second Hutch had touched his neck.

When Starsky read no revulsion in those handsome, startled features, he reached up and tangled his fingers in the sweaty gold locks at the back of Hutch's head, attempting to guide his partner's mouth back to his neck.

Hutch's eyes widened in surprise, his features going slack with astonishment. The blond simply sat there for what felt an eternity, visibly thunderstruck by this unexpected turnabout. Hutch wasn't actively resisting the pull of Starsky's hand; he just seemed too stunned to react.

"Hutch?"

The raw need in his voice appeared to shake Hutch out of his daze. "Yeah, I'm still here."

Mortified by his body's helpless, inappropriate response to his closest friend, Starsky's gaze dropped and he mumbled, "Sorry. Don't know why..."

"It's okay." A gentle hand lifted Starsky's chin so that their eyes would meet again. "Really, it's okay."

"You're not... freaked out by it?" he tested.

"Freaked out?" the blond snorted, "Starsky, I've spent the last two nights sleeping in a coffin. Believe me, this is nothin'."

Not sure he liked being called nothing, Starsky offered in a subdued tone, "Feels like a hell of a lot more than nothin' from where I'm layin', buddy."

"Yeah? You okay with that, Starsk? When we found out about Johnny Blaine, you had some trouble with the concept."

Reading the legitimate concern, Starsky found a grin. "The only trouble I'm having is keepin' my hands to myself."

Acceptance flooded the handsome, ghost-white face as Hutch's full lips twitched into a small, bemused smile.

Starsky literally felt the blood run cold in his veins as the soft lamp light flashed off his partner's smile. He gaped at the changes that had taken place there in the past few minutes. Hutch's incisor teeth had.... grown.

Before Starsky could get a really good view of the exact nature of the alteration, the smile dropped from Hutch's face and his full lips bunched tightly closed, then he turned away.

When almost a full minute passed and Hutch showed no indication of turning back to him, Starsky extended a badly shaking hand and caught hold of the square jaw, forcing Hutch's face back to him.

The chicory blue gaze flickered from somewhere above Starsky's left shoulder down the front of his robe, then to an innocuous point beyond Starsky's right arm. Finally, the frightened gaze ceased its desperate darting to hesitantly meet Starsky's own.

The utter vulnerability and intense shame Starsky found there was shocking. He'd seen that identical look on the face of a boy who'd lived on his block back in New York. The kid had had a deformed arm that he'd kept hidden all the time. Never wanting to see such an expression on this proud man's face again, Starsky brushed his fingers over the tensely pursed lips, gently pleading, "Come on, let me see."

A moment's doubt flashed across those handsome features, then Hutch slowly relaxed his tensed jaw muscles to gradually reveal his teeth.

Starsky stared at the slender protrusions, very conscious of his partner's gaze digging into the side of his face as he looked his fill.

"They ain't right," Starsky decided at last.

"Huh?"

"In the movies, vampires always have huge fangs, too big for their mouths, like a dog's or a wolf's. Yours ain't like that."

"They're not?" It was a question.

It was only then that Starsky realized that his companion could never have seen what his new teeth looked like, invisible as the tyro vampire now was in mirrors. Starsky stared at the elongated incisors, trying to figure out how best to describe them.

"No," he murmured, "they're shaped pretty much the same, except they're longer at the bottom now, pointier, like kitten teeth." He touched one of the fine points, pulling back fast as even that light pressure broke through the skin of his index finger. "They're sharper, too. Like a razor."

Starsky stuck his finger in his mouth and stared at his partner's teeth with new respect. The tips looked far too delicate to be capable of such efficient slicing. The light glistened off those streamlined aberrations as off glazed, milky porcelain.

His description appeared to relax Hutch some. At least the blond smiled again, though far more shyly this time. "A kitten, huh?"

His nod turned into a shiver as Hutch's hand found his neck again. This time the blond didn't even pretend to mask the touch as anything but a lover's caress.

Abruptly, Starsky remembered what they were supposed to be doing, what he'd offered his partner. Starsky tried viewing those thin fangs in light of it, knew he should be scared, but... the shivers coursing through him felt too damn good to interrupt again.

Still, Starsky continued to watch those gleaming additions to his partner's dental palate. He was intrigued by the teeth. They felt bone solid, like they'd been in Hutch's mouth all his life, but they hadn't been extended like that when Hutch had first come to him. The blond's incisors had just been normal teeth. Starsky figured that their elongation probably had something to do with how close Hutch was to... feeding. He wanted to ask Hutch how they lengthened, if they retracted into the jaw like a snake's fangs or something new, but conversation seemed too hard at the moment.

He stifled a gasp as Hutch's hand brushed across the exposed V of his chest, in between the folds of his robe. Those sensitive fingertips gently rustled the body hair downing the area, something in Hutch's entire attitude seeming to suggest that he was savoring the sensation. In fact, if Starsky didn't know any better, he'd almost swear from that absorbed expression that this was something his partner had waited his entire life to do.

The thought only made him tremble more. Starsky's body was alive to this man's touch as he couldn't recall being to a lover in... years. It was the same type of excited quaking—part fear, all desire—that he hadn't felt since puberty when he was learning the ropes. Only, this was so much more intense, for this was another man touching him this way and the possibilities were... earth shaking.

The unmistakable love guiding those gentle fingers did more than calm Starsky; it fed his tortured soul, making him strain to get even closer to his partner.

Hutch didn't disappoint him. Starsky lost sight of his friend's face as a curtain of sweat-damp, golden hair cascaded forward when Hutch lowered his head to Starsky's neck again. Those full lips started skimming Starsky's throat, their touch soft and cool, amazingly sensual.

Starsky tried to catch his fleeing breath, tried to control the tingling, but his partner was having an almost unnatural effect on him.

True, it was Hutch and after the past six days of hurting, Starsky was oversensitive to everything about his friend, but even so, the way his body was responding to these basically tame caresses was unprecedented. As much as he cared for Hutch, it still shouldn't feel this good.

It was almost like he was drugged or intoxicated, Starsky foggily recognized.

A whimper caught in his throat as Hutch's warm, wet tongue lapped at the skin directly above his jugular. After a moment's hesitation, the sensuous licks turned to a close mouthed nuzzling, and from there to... something more.

One sharp prick, followed by another.

Starsky held his breath, waiting, wondering if there would be more pain. But the area seemed strangely numb. There was no further discomfort, only Hutch's contented sigh, followed by the soft sound of sucking.

It should have hurt. In the movies, it always looked like it would, but those tiny, razor sharp points went into the flesh so smoothly that Starsky could barely sense them there.

All Starsky could feel was the sudden spiraling of energy, a surge of such undiluted pleasure that it made him gasp as it rocked his entire consciousness. He shook under the pulsing waves. There was no fighting the feeling; it was as inexorable as dawn. Starsky's straining shaft thrust upwards, searching for the long body that was still primarily draped on the bed beside him.

His left hand stroked down the back of Hutch's suit jacket, stopping at the blond's waist while Starsky's right hand mirrored the gesture. He wormed his bare right leg under his partner's longer, trouser covered limbs.

Consumed by what he could only define as driving lust, Starsky gave a tug at Hutch's waist. He wasn't even certain if his friend would be aware of his actions, so absorbed was Hutch in his... feeding.

But the lanky blond complied without protest, Hutch not seeming to even notice when Starsky's thighs locked possessively around his slender hips to trap their lower bodies together.

Hutch was heavier than any of Starsky's other lovers. And he smelt so incontestably male, so... Hutch. Like everything else about this unique experience, it took some getting used to. Even so, his partner felt incredible against him. All that hard, muscular heat pressing against every inch of his body made his senses swim with delight.

Starsky's hips thrust up, grinding his frantic cock against the front of his partner's pants. His robe fell open, comforting terry cloth replaced by the rough fabric of Hutch's trousers. He was so aroused, so far gone, that even that chafing contact felt like heaven to his sensitive shaft.

This time Hutch did notice. Although the genitals on the other side of the pants they'd buried Hutch in didn't seem influenced by what they were doing, the blond obligingly pressed his front harder down against Starsky's erection.

Hutch's right hand worked its way between their close pressed chests. After some very enjoyable, blind searching, the novice vampire located Starsky's right nipple. Gathering the pert bud between his thumb and forefinger, Hutch tweaked the erect flesh, causing Starsky to shout out loud at the resulting mind-reeling sensations.

Everything seemed to be spinning too fast. Starsky could barely breathe under the pleasures wracking through him. The dual sensations were almost more than he could endure. The more familiar sexual arousal was wild enough in itself, but those feelings radiating out from where Hutch was sucking at his neck were even fiercer. They ripped through him like eagle talons, rending his neural paths, searing his soul with their peculiar brand of ecstasy.

It was little wonder Hutch hadn't been able to refuse the woman who'd done this to him. Starsky knew that if his partner came to him every night for the next week to drain him to death, he'd eagerly await the vampire's arrival just to feel this rush again.

Then all thought died as his world exploded into a solar flare of undiluted ecstasy. The climax was cruelly relentless, more intense than heart failure—which Starsky fully expected to get from the sensations swirling through him. The human body wasn't designed to feel this much, Starsky thought as he blacked in and out of consciousness, his primal scream of release rocking the room.

Starsky felt vaguely guilty as he realized he'd just come all over the front of Hutch's pants, but it was a distant worry, something he'd think about later.

Later, when he tried to sort all this out. He was under no illusions that there wasn't going to be a hell of a lot to mull over once morning came. But he felt too damn happy at the moment to screw this up with unnecessary brow beating. Such soul searching was his partner's bailiwick. And now that Hutch was alive again... well, maybe he'd just leave all that heavy duty thinking to his buddy.

Complete and utter stillness came after the cataclysmic release. The ghost of Starsky's scream reverberated through the chill night air, seeming to echo off the walls long after the sound had actually faded.

Reluctantly emerging from the paradise to which loving Hutch had blasted his consciousness, Starsky's ears began to function again. He became aware of the raging of his heartbeat and his own frantic pants for breath.

Somehow in those final moments, their positions had become reversed. Hutch was no longer on top of him or attached to him, for that matter. Starsky's head was pillowed on his partner's damp white shirtfront, Starsky's body locked in a tight death grip to the taller man's chest.

Craning his neck up, Starsky stared fondly down at Hutch's face. No grown man, much less a vampire, should be capable of such... heart wrenching innocence. Hutch's eyes were closed, his full lips parted, an expression of complete contentment softening his features. Starsky was relieved to note that for the first time that night, his partner's color was close to normal. With his flushed cheeks, wiped-out expression, and sweaty tangle of golden locks, the blond looked like a sleeping toddler.

As he watched, the pale-lashed eyelids fluttered open. Hutch's eyes seemed bluer than gas jets, almost glowing with sleepy satiation. The contented gaze focused on Starsky.

In that unguarded second, Starsky's heart seemed to slam to a sudden stop. Twenty years worth of lovers behind him, and absolutely no one had looked at Starsky with such open adoration. The love shining there was so solid that he could almost reach out and touch it.

Alarmed, Starsky watched all that sleepy contentment shatter. In a heartbeat fear iced through those handsome Nordic features as Hutch's hand shot to Starsky's forehead. The warm flesh felt like living flame against Starsky's strangely cool skin as the palm rested on his brow for a moment before darting to the brunet's neck. Hutch's hand faltered in mid-air, apparently stopped by whatever traces of their sharing lingered at Starsky's throat.

As if afraid to go near where he'd fed, Hutch's hand rested on the other side of Starsky's neck, above his pulse. Whatever Hutch found there, he didn't seem to like it much, for the vampire savagely bit his lower lip and looked away.

Absently, Starsky noted that Hutch's incisors had returned to their normal size.

For some reason, Starsky found that he was having trouble concentrating. His thoughts would go cloudy one minute, almost on the verge of sleep, then he'd bounce back to foggy awareness.

Frightened, he realized that Hutch was pulling away from him, getting up. A frantic grab for the blond's jacket left him clutching empty air. Horrified, he watched as his beloved night visitor walked quickly towards the bedroom door.

"Don't... Hutch, don't leave me!" From the force of the fear he felt, he should have screamed the words, but Starsky knew that they barely emerged as a weak whisper. He tried to sit up, to go to Hutch, but the bed started moving or maybe it was the room swirling around the bed. Whatever the cause, the motion sent his empty stomach lurching wildly within him.

Hutch stopped dead in his tracks and was instantly back by his side. "Lie back, Starsk," the worried blond urged, gently smoothing the sweat-damp curls back from Starsky's face.

Distracted by how good that simple touch felt, Starsky forced himself to concentrate on essentials.

"Don't go," he pleaded as the sheets and blankets were piled on top of him. This time when he made a grab for Hutch, his aim was truer and he was able to catch hold of his friend's arm.

"I'm just going to the kitchen. I'll be back in a minute," Hutch promised in a voice that sounded choked with tears. "Please, just lie still. I'll be right back."

Hesitantly, Starsky released his partner's hand. His eyes followed the lanky vampire as Hutch left the room, then continued to stare at the empty doorway. He listened to the sound of his partner's retreating footsteps, the opening and closing of the refrigerator door, the rush of tap water, followed by a strange sloshing sound, and then, finally, the thing he was waiting for, the soft tread as Hutch returned. Starsky relaxed as the tall figure re-entered the room, staring in confusion at his partner's laden arms.

Hutch held a pitcher in one hand. It was filled with something frothy and orange. There was an empty glass tucked in the crook of his elbow. Hutch's other arm was burdened with a colorful jumble of afghans. It looked like the blond had grabbed the throw off every piece of furniture in the living room.

Hutch put the half-filled jug on the nightstand, along with the glass. Then he dropped one afghan to the floor and used his hands to shake out the rainbow throw from the couch. With painstaking tenderness, the blond spread the colorful afghan over Starsky's blankets. Retrieving the other from the floor, he did the same. Only when Starsky was muffled beneath enough layers to keep him warm in Santa's workshop did the vampire turn to pour a glass of the orange liquid.

Hutch sat on the bed by his partner's side and helped Starsky rise to a sitting position, supporting the shaky cop while he drank the offered drink.

Too weak to argue, Starsky gulped the sweet stuff. Orange juice. For a second, he wondered where it came from, but then he remembered the sloshing noises. He'd bought a can of concentrate last week so he'd have juice in stock when he lured his sick partner over to ensure that the blond got the proper care he needed.

"Thanks." Starsky handed back the empty glass, feeling its former contents bounce around his stomach as though the juice would rejoin its container.

"Don't thank me." Hutch took Starsky's hand between both his own, staring down at it emptily. "I—I'm sorry, Starsk."

"Huh?"

"You were in no condition for that. Hell, you were worn down before we even started. I should never have..."

"I'm fine," he objected, "besides, I liked it. A lot." He was too sleepy to be bothered by the stark honesty of his confession. Seeing some of the depression leave Hutch's weary blue eyes, he smiled. "Come here, it's chilly."

He lifted the covers for his friend to climb in beside him, feeling almost shy in Hutch's presence at the moment. He could barely look at his partner without thinking about what they'd done, how good pressing against his beautiful, blond, all male partner had felt.

The worry was back in Hutch's eyes as he kicked off his shoes and slid in beside him. "In the morning, drink some more of that orange juice, okay?"

"Sure," he agreed, turning on his side to face his companion. Strangely nervous, he tentatively settled an arm across the nearby chest, wondering if Hutch would object now that the blond wasn't so distracted feeding. When no protest emerged, Starsky pushed his luck by asking, "You'll be here tomorrow; won't you? I mean, you won't... leave?"

"You should get some sleep," Hutch said evenly, not meeting his eyes.

Chilled by both the tone and the evasion, Starsky pleaded, "Hutch?"

A trapped look flickered across those intimately known features, then Hutch reached out to thoughtfully finger Starsky's neck where he'd fed.

The light touch stung a little.

"It would be better for you if I didn't come back."

Starsky gulped, almost paralyzed by the realization that even now, he could still lose Hutch. "Don't do this to me, Hutch. Please? I—I can't make it without you, partner."

The quiet that followed was the longest, most nerve rattling in history.

"You really want me here?"

"I won't stay here alone without you."

"What are you saying, Starsk?"

"Look at me," he commanded. "How much longer do you think I woulda held out?"

He could see in Hutch's eyes that they both knew the answer to that question.

Finally, Hutch gave a sharp, resigned nod. "Okay." The agreement was totally devoid of both enthusiasm and emotion.

Even in his sleep-fogged state, Starsky recognized that his partner was doing it for him, living because Starsky wanted him to do so.

"It'll work out. You'll see," Starsky promised, cuddling closer.

That got something of a smile out of the somber blond; although an almost bitter shadow lingered in Hutch's unhappy eyes. "Yeah, right. It's a piece of cake."

Starsky grinned. "Don't be such a pessimist. Me and thee forever, babe."

Hutch's hand moved to absently finger Starsky's dark curls. "Forever takes on a whole new connotation now, Starsk."

"Huh?"

"Nothing. Go to sleep, partner."

"You'll...."

Hutch interrupted his panicked entreaty. "I'll be here tomorrow. Promise."

Grinning, Starsky settled his cheek on Hutch's chest. "Good. 'night, Hutch."

"Good night, partner."

Hutch's hand gently rubbing in smooth circles over his robe covered back, Starsky finally surrendered to exhaustion, the world abruptly not quite as bleak a place as it'd been this past week. Almost happy, he drifted off, Hutch's heart beat firm and steady beneath his cheek.

The End

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