Starsky had a problem.

Or maybe it was Hutch who had the problem. No, it was more like Hutch was the problem.

Dave Starsky and Ken Hutchinson had been partners for seven years. They were close, as close as two people could be. For example, Starsky knew his partner better than he knew his own brother. He probably loved him more than he loved his brother, too. They'd seen each other through some pretty rough times and had been there to celebrate the good times together.

But lately something had changed.

The changes were subtle at first, and if he didn't know Hutch as well as he did, Starsky might not have noticed them. But they were there. Their usual banter seemed strained, almost forced. Hutch's comments changed from being teasing to being cruel. He took every opportunity to make a dig at his partner, put him down, make fun of him for something. Starsky had tried to dismiss it, make excuses for it, but it was getting worse.

If he'd been a kid and Hutch one of his classmates making fun of him on the playground, his mother would have told him 'sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me', and maybe told him to just ignore little Kenny and not play with him. But 'Kenny' was his partner, and they were together twelve hours a day. As for words not hurting - whoever thought up that rhyme had no idea what he was talking about. Words hurt. Hutch's words hurt as badly as if they were physical blows.

He came to a decision and stopped the car, pulling over into a convenient parking lot outside some restaurant or other.

Hutch, who had been lost in thought, snapped his head up as the car stopped. "What are we stopping here for?" he asked. "Surely you can make it from the precinct to my apartment without stopping to feed your face."

Attempting to ignore the jab, Dave said, "I want to talk to you."

His partner's words worried Hutch. Surely Starsky hadn't discovered his secret? He thought he'd done a good job of hiding it, but Starsky did know him better than anyone. He'd play dumb and hope that wasn't what the other man wanted to talk about. "Yeah?" he said in what he hoped was a casual manner. "What about?"

"About us."

"What about us?"

"Have I done anything in the last little while, maybe the last few weeks, to hurt you? I've gone over everything I can remember, all our cases and the times we're together off-duty too" - sadly, their times together off duty were a lot fewer and farther between than they'd once been - "and I can't think of anything, at least nothing I did on purpose. But if there is anything, I'd really like to know so I can apologize."

"What makes you think you've done anything ?" asked Hutch. But he knew what his partner meant. His insulting Starsky had become almost a habit lately, his way of distancing himself from him, a way of preventing Starsky from getting too close.

"Well," Starsky began, not knowing exactly what he wanted to say, "I know we've always made, you know, jokes. Bugged each other about women or our cars or whatever. But lately it seems like the things you say are more than just jokes. Like you really don't want me around." A thought suddenly occurred to him. "Hutch - do you want to stop being partners?"

Stop being partners? In truth, that was the last thing Hutch wanted. He wanted to stay by Starsky's side, be there 24/7 if he could. But maybe if they stopped being partners there would be less chance of Starsky's figuring out how Hutch really felt.

"That might be a good idea," Hutch choked out. It was the hardest thing he could ever remember saying.

Starsky absorbed the words as he studied his partner. Hutch was lying. He was sure of it. It seemed to hurt him to say those words. "Are you sure?"

"Yeah, I'm sure."

Starsky didn't respond right away. He didn't know why Hutch was lying about no longer wanting to be partners, but he'd have to take him at his word. "All right," he said. "I'll talk to Captain Dobey in the morning."

When Starsky dropped off his partner at Venice Place, Hutch tried to make things a bit better. "Look, it's been seven years. We're stale. New blood might be good for us, make us better cops."

"Yeah, sure," muttered Starsky. They were the best cops they could be. Dobey often said so. They knew each other inside and out, and this was what made them good cops. "Goodbye, Hutch," he said as the blond man went inside.

"You want WHAT?" exclaimed Dobey the next day as the two men presented their request.

"New partners," said Hutch. "We don't want to be partners with each other any more. We're getting stale, complacent."

"Starsky, is this what you want?" Dobey asked.

No, of course it wasn't what he wanted. "It's really Hutch's idea, Cap'n. But if it's what he wants, I'll go along with it."

"The two of you are the best team I have!"

"We can be good with other partners. After all, there's lots of new, young cops coming up who could benefit from our experience, right?" asked Hutch.

Dobey just sighed and started the paperwork that would assign new partners to Starsky and Hutch.

Hutch was assigned a young cop named Danny Johnson. Starsky's new partner had a familiar face.

"Meredith!" Starsky exclaimed when the female detective arrived. "What are you doing here?"

"I'm your new partner, Starsky," she replied. "The captain liked the way we worked together when we were partnered before, so he put us together again."

"That's great," said Dave. If he had to have a new partner, Meredith would be a good one.

Hutch tried not to be jealous of Starsky's new partner. He was pretty sure she was interested in David romantically. She probably had a better chance with him than Hutch did.

Life went on for both men. Starsky went out with Meredith sometimes, but found that while he liked her, he didn't like her that way. But they still went out, as friends. They went by the Pits to see Huggy fairly often. It was strange to walk into the Pits without Hutch. The first time he'd gone in there with Meredith, Huggy had asked, "Where's your partner?"

"This is my partner," he said, indicating Meredith.

"Partner? But where's Hutch?"

"Hutch decided he wanted to change partners."

"Hutch decided he wanted to do WHAT? Has that man gone insane?" asked Huggy.

"Don't ask me. Ask him," replied Dave.

Starsky tried calling Hutch sometimes, but either Hutch wasn't home or he was screening his calls. He wasn't even sure why he was trying to reach his former partner. It wasn't as if Hutch had been particularly pleasant to be around the last few months. But he knew that the way Hutch had been behaving lately hadn't been like him. Seven years of partnership, and friendship, outweighed a few months of insults and put downs.

Hutch was indeed screening his calls. He wanted to talk to Starsky but had no idea what he would say to him if he did. "I'm sorry that I had to stop being your partner, but you see I'm in love with you, and it was affecting my work." Not very likely. Or maybe, "I would love to see you, but I don't want to just see you. I want to kiss you, and touch you, and take you to bed and make love with you." That one was definitely out. So he avoided his former partner and best friend, and struggled to maintain his composure any time he ran into Starsky and Meredith at the precinct.

Johnson was an okay cop; not spectacular, but not bad for a rookie. But Hutch had the feeling that young Danny was getting a bit tired of hearing about Starsky.

Hutch was getting seriously depressed. He'd hoped that if he didn't see Starsky every day, he'd get over his feelings for his now ex-partner. But it hadn't worked. He missed Starsky like he'd miss an arm or a leg if one were gone. It felt like part of him was missing. And he didn't know what the hell to do about it.

What Hutch didn't know was that Starsky felt the same way. He tried not to talk about Hutch when he was with Meredith. The other detective knew that something had happened between Starsky and Hutch, but she didn't know what.

If only Hutch would talk to him. If only he could find out what had made Hutch suddenly stop wanting to be his partner - stop wanting to be his friend. He loved Hutch like he'd never loved anyone, even Teri. Not that it mattered. Hutch would never feel that way about him.

He was snapped out of his reverie by the radio. "Zebra Three, officer needs assistance, Mac's Super Food Mart, corner of Eighth and Pandora." Starsky started the car, and Meredith picked up the radio. "Zebra Three responding," she said. It sounded strange to hear Meredith responding as Zebra Three. He and Hutch had been Zebra Three for seven years.

When they arrived at the food store they found a standoff in progress. A rookie named Wilson had interrupted a robbery, and the perpetrator was holding the store's cashier hostage. Wilson was hiding behind his patrol car while the robber occasionally took pot shots at him.

"What's the situation, Wilson?" Starsky asked as he joined the younger man.

"I think he should just about be out of bullets. I'm hoping if I wait long enough he'll realize there's nowhere he can go, and he'll give up."

"Any sign of that so far?" Starsky inquired.

"Not yet," said Wilson. More shots came from inside the store.

"That's six!" exclaimed Wilson happily. He jumped up and grabbed his bullhorn. "Attention, inside the store! This is Officer Wilson. You're out of bullets. You have nowhere to go. Release your hostage and surrender."

Apparently Wilson had miscounted, or the robber had more bullets and had reloaded his gun. A shot rang out, and Wilson fell to the ground. Starsky yelled to Meredith to call for assistance while he tried to tend to the young officer's injury.

Meredith ran to the Torino and grabbed the radio. "This is Zebra Three," she almost shouted into it. "We have an officer down. Repeat, we have an officer down, corner of Eighth and Pandora. Send an ambulance!"

Hutch, doing routine patrol work with Johnson, heard Meredith on the radio. Zebra Three? Officer down? His blood ran cold. Starsky? Had Starsky been hurt - or worse? Hutch cursed himself. He should never have ended their partnership. If he'd been with Starsky he would have protected him. He would never have let anything happen to Starsky. All right, that wasn't entirely realistic, but all he could think of was that Starsky was hurt, and he wasn't there. He switched on the lights and siren and headed for Eighth and Pandora, ignoring the bewildered look Johnson gave him.

Arriving at the scene of the shooting, Hutch found Meredith talking to Captain Dobey, who had arrived to help coordinate the efforts of the S.W.A.T. team who had been called in to deal with the gunman. Grabbing her arm, he demanded, "Where's Starsky?"

"He went to the hospital," the detective answered, not certain why Hutchinson was acting so frantic. The blond man turned and headed for his car. Johnson followed him in confusion. Hutch stopped to talk to the younger man. "Listen, Johnson, you stay here with Captain Dobey and Detective Meredith. I'm sure they need all the officers they can get on this one. I'm going to the hospital." And he left.

Bewildered, Johnson reported to Dobey. "I don't know what's with Sergeant Hutchinson, but he told me to stay here," the young detective informed the Captain.

"Meredith, when you called in to report the shooting, did you tell Dispatch who had been shot?" Dobey asked, a sudden suspicion forming in his mind.

"No, I just reported an officer down," she replied.

"And you identified yourself as Zebra Three?"

"Of course. What else would I do?" Meredith asked in confusion.

"Oh Lord," muttered Dobey. "Hutchinson thinks that Starsky got shot."

As Hutch raced to the hospital, every cruel word he had ever said to Starsky echoed in his ears. How could he have said those things to his partner, to his best friend? Why was Starsky even still speaking to him? He thought he would have driven the other man away by now, but his former partner still called him every week or two, wanting to get together, wanting to talk. Getting the answering machine every time he called didn't seem to deter him.

Arriving at the hospital, he pulled into the first empty parking space he could find and ran into the building. Arriving at the admitting desk he gasped out, "A police officer was just brought in here. Where is he?"

The nurse looked bored. "Room 1204," she said, and Hutch took off again without even saying thank you.

To his astonishment, Hutch found Starsky sitting outside room 1204 reading a magazine. "Starsky!" he cried out, unable to hide the fear and relief in his voice.

The dark-haired man looked up at him curiously. "Hutch? What are you doing here?"

"I heard on the radio that there was an officer down. It was Zebra Three. Meredith called it in. I thought it was you!"

"It wasn't me. It was a rookie, young guy named Wilson. He was shot by a guy holed up in a grocery store. Robbery gone bad. Wilson tried to be a hero. I decided to come with him to the hospital and contact his family. They're in there with him now." He then noticed how pale his friend looked, how frightened. "Are you okay?" he asked, standing and walking over to him. To his astonishment, he saw tears in Hutch's eyes.

"Starsky, I thought.... I thought ... I wasn't with you, and you'd been hurt, and I've treated you so badly. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry!" Hutch didn't seem quite able to form a coherent sentence.

Starsky put his hand on Hutch's shoulder. "Hey, it's okay. I'm all right. I'm not hurt."

"No, it's not okay!" Hutch almost shouted. "I shouldn't have said all those things to you. I should have never said I didn't want to be your partner."

"Hang on a minute. I'll be right back," Starsky told him. He went into Wilson's room and said goodbye to the young officer and his family. When he came out, he said to Hutch, "Let's go somewhere and talk."

Hutch followed him out into the parking lot. Looking at his own car, and at Hutch's, Starsky said, "Let's take my car. I'll drive you back to pick up yours later." So Hutch got into the Torino. He'd missed the red car. God knew he'd complained about it enough when he and Starsky were still partners, but it was part of Starsky, and he'd missed it just like he'd missed everything about Starsky. Man, he had it bad. But what would Starsky say when he told him? And he had to tell him. He couldn't keep it a secret any longer.

They went up to Starsky's apartment in silence. The darker man sat on the couch and gestured for his partner - former partner - to sit anywhere he liked. Hutch sat on the couch next to him. They sat like that, awkwardly, for a while until Starsky finally spoke.

"So, you want to tell me what all this is about?" he asked.

"You promise you won't hate me when I tell you?" Hutch responded.

"Hate you? I could never hate you. I love you." Realizing what he'd just said, Starsky added, "You're my best friend."

"Is that how you love me? As your friend?" Hutch wanted to know. "Because that's not how I love you. And I do. Love you, I mean."

"Forgive me for stating the obvious, but you haven't exactly been acting like you love me lately."

The blond man groaned. "I know. I'm sor-" Starsky raised a hand and cut him off.

"I know. You said you were sorry. What I want to know is, if you love me, why have you been acting like a Grade A asshole lately?"

Hutch sighed. "Because I didn't want you to know that I love you. I was afraid that if we were together much longer you'd figure it out, and then you would hate me, you would push me away, and you wouldn't want to be partners anymore."

"What changed?" Starsky asked in a soft voice.

"I thought you were dead!" Hutch said with a sob. "When I heard the officer down report, I thought you'd been hurt, even killed. I thought that if I had been there, if we were still partners, I would have been able to protect you."

Starsky took a deep breath and tried to calm the shudder that ran through him as he thought of a time when he had believed Hutch to be dead. He'd seen his friend get shot, and hadn't remembered he was wearing a bulletproof vest. He pushed the frightening scene from his mind and turned back to Hutch.

"Blondie," he said in an affectionate tone, albeit one tinged with exasperation, "like I said before, I could never hate you. I love you. You're my best friend, my partner, half of my soul. " He took Hutch's hand and kissed it. "And when I say that I love you, I don't mean as a friend or a brother. "

"You love me?" Hutch asked in a whisper.

"I love you."


"Really." And to prove it, Starsky took Hutch into his arms and kissed him passionately.

Hutch could hardly believe what was happening. He was in Starsky's arms. Starsky was kissing him. He wasn't sure what he had done to deserve this, especially after the way he had treated his friend lately. Reluctantly, he pulled away, gasping for breath.

"We need to talk," he stated.

"I'd rather kiss," Starsky replied.

Hutch had to smile. "I know, but we need to sort some things out. I mean, I've been acting like a complete jerk for the last couple of months, and yet you're willing to just ignore all that and kiss me like there's no tomorrow?"

Dave sat and thought about that for a moment. Finally, he said, "I guess it does seem kind of strange. But I do love you. I had to spend the last couple of weeks without you, without seeing you every day like I used to. I missed you. It just feels so good to have you back again. Knowing that you love me the way that I love you.... I can't describe how that makes me feel. I know you didn't mean the things you said, and I understand why you said them. I forgive you."

Hutch took his partner back into his arms. "I don't deserve you," he said, holding Starsky close.

"No, you don't," Starsky agreed, returning the embrace. "But you have me anyway."

The blond man had to laugh at that. "Can we be partners again?" he asked.

"You bet."

Running a hand through Starsky's hair, he asked another question. "Can we be partners off the job as well?"

Starsky planted a soft kiss on his new lover. "On and off duty. Partners in life. Always."