Comments on this story can be sent to the author at jojosimco@aol.com

PART ONE

PART TWO

A DAY LESS ORDINARY

by

JoJo

PART THREE

Starsky was thinking about getting his Dodgers' season ticket when he woke up. He knew he had woken up before a few times, but then it had been to a dreamlike vision of the nurses moving slowly round him like fish swimming in a deep blue tank, all shadows and reflections in a muffled underworld. This time the noises were different, although the bluish light was the same. His eyes traveled down to his feet. All was white. He could feel the canula in the inside of his elbow. He was dry and felt as if he had flu. His chest hurt when he breathed in. There was a memory skirting around but he would not let it in for now.

"Honey?" said a voice. He saw his mother sitting by him. That was because he was in bed with the flu, presumably. She smiled quaveringly at him. Her manner seemed odd to him, but he smiled at her although it took a while for his muscles to respond. She said all kinds of things but somehow he could not find the strength to answer. He tried to reply with his eyes, to be kind to her because she seemed so worried, but he hardly felt present at the scene. The memory at the edges threatened to become clearer so he closed his eyes and almost immediately fell asleep again.

Next time it was the nurses. He felt as if he should know them. They were changing the bed, moving him with infinite gentleness and skill, giving him sips of water. Still the chest pain and the encroaching memory. It was not so easy to sleep again, it seemed like he had a mighty hangover.

"You're coming off the sedatives, David," said the Irish nurse. She knew him? "You're going cold turkey, my sweetheart. It'll get better soon."

Should he ask? "Where?"

Eileen laughed. "Poor boy," she said. "You're in Memorial, in the ICU, you've been very sick but we hope we've got you back now. You've been here nearly two weeks. Remember?"

"My side," said Starsky in a voice he did not recognize.

"Bless you, sweetheart. You were badly injured, you've had lots of problems. It'll be hard for a while. My name's Eileen, I'm on duty this evening. You need to rest now. Maybe later you can try and sit up -- see how the pain is. I've just given you something for that, it'll kick in soon."

"Hot," said Starsky.

"Mmmm, I know. You're still running a fever, poor boy. Try and sleep now."

He remembered about the Dodgers' ticket and was annoyed he had forgotten to sort it out again. If he did not do it by Tuesday he would be unlucky.

"Tuesday," he said.

"What did you say?" someone replied.

Starsky opened his eyes, almost expecting to be standing at the ticket booth with his Amex in hand. "Is it Tuesday yet?"

A low laugh. "Ah no, buddy, it's Sunday."

There was a morning feel about the room this time. Not so blue. Not so white. He had a blanket on. The canula was still there, and the pain in his chest, but the hangover seemed gone.

"Hutch?"

When he looked to his right he saw the real Hutch sitting in a chair, leaning slightly towards him. He was in a weekend shirt, no jacket. The Trib and a cup of coffee were on a table next to him. He looked wasted, weary, baggy-eyed.

Starsky felt a stab of concern for him. "Hey," he said.

"Hey yourself," said Hutch, the strain on his face creasing into a feeble smile of relief. "How are you feeling?"

"You tell me," Starsky said.

"Don't try and talk too much," Hutch said, pulling his chair in closer. "That's doctor's orders. You know where you are, right?"

Starsky looked round the room, making a face. "Seems clear."

"You're still in intensive care, buddy, but they moved you somewhere quieter. They won't take you off the critical list yet."

"No kidding?" Starsky seemed impressed with that.

"We nearly lost you, Starsk." The break in Hutch's voice was not lost on Starsky but he could not quite respond to it.

"Dreaming," he murmured. He sounded very tired. "The car."

"We brought you in the car -- me and Jay. You remember?"

"They got it out."

"They did. And we found the guy -- a kid. He's looking at five to ten."

"Bad dreams."

Hutch nodded. "I know, buddy, you've had a tough time but it's over now. You just need to get plenty of rest and kick that fever. They won't take you to a proper room until it's gone."

"Fever?"

"Yeah, you're a proper invalid. Eileen will be in soon, to see her beloved David. She'll be on my case for tiring you out."

"You are very tiring."

Hutch gave a grateful laugh. "Yeah, well you're not allowed other visitors just yet. They're queueing up out there, but you're stuck with me right now."

"Good."

"Can't face it, huh, buddy?"

Starsky shut his eyes a second and shook his head. The tangle of reality and delirium was still not sorting itself out. Starsky knew Hutch had been part of it all, somehow, but he did not want to see anyone else who didn't know. Sinclair had already explained to them that Starsky would need time to adjust. Hutch knew all about cops and post traumatic stress. Starsky's fingers curled towards him. Hutch took up his hand and squeezed it tenderly.

"It's OK. Just take it easy. You've got a way to go. They have to get you mobile and eating -- might be another week the doc says. You've been pumped so full of drugs, you're a regular junkie."

Starsky just nodded. He seemed exhausted. Hutch was saying something else but his partner fell asleep mid-sentence, like a kitten overcome by play. It happened a lot over the next few days, days in which he tried to pick up from the wakeful, feverish nights. Trisha came a lot, sometimes with Nicky in tow, although he still found it hard to contribute. Hutch was back at work but Dobey was generous with his hours. A mass of cards and flowers had built up at Memorial, once they knew the biggest danger was past. Hutch brought in messages which Starsky listened to in silence. Clem came in and made him laugh, but anything like that seemed to trigger the clinging fever again.

"So much for us being perfect for one another," she said gloomily when Hutch drove her home. "I swear I've just made him worse, Hutch."

"No, it just seems like that. He's a long way from recovery -- Sinclair said so just this morning. They're going to try some different antibiotics, see if they can beef up his immunity."

"Does it seem to you like we'll never get him back?"

"Sometimes."

"Do you think he'll resign?" Well, it would be Clem to ask that.

"More likely he'll be forced to retire," Hutch said.

"Really?"

"I don't know. I don't know how it'll be. It's hard to imagine, but cops have cracked up for less than a two week near-death experience."

"David won't crack up. You won't let him."

"Maybe he won't pass the fitness tests -- they'll be hard on him, you know."

"Oh god, don't. Let's not think about it."

"You brought it up."

"Well I'm un-bringing it up now, OK?"

"OK."

It took a few more days before Starsky got on to it himself. Hutch had dropped in after work, bringing some car magazines and a tape of the Lakers last game which Starsky had missed when he had fallen asleep while Hutch and Nick were settled in their hospital chairs under his TV. The meal orderlies were just taking out tonight's food -- soup again - which Hutch was still amazed to see Starsky had hardly touched, and he could see when he came in that the evening fever was just starting to kick in. Starsky's eyes had that hard, bright look, he was leaning back on his plumped pillows. He smiled, though, when Hutch came in.

"Pictures of cars," Hutch said cheerfully, dumping the magazines on the bed.

"Thank you. Pictures I can do."

"And here's the Lakers' tape -- really, Starsk, it's worth staying awake for."

"I'll do my best."

"How you doing?"

"Oh, you know."

"Yes, I can see." Hutch smiled more encouragement. "Same old same old, huh?"

"The longer this goes on, Hutch, the less likely I am to get back behind the wheel," Starsky said. This long sentence seemed to tire him out.

"Says who?"

"Well. Me."

"Look, Starsk, Sinclair has been pretty straight. It's going to be a long road and you're not going to get better all at once. You're still real sick. It's too soon to be speculating about your future in the force. Who cares about that? Just sweat it out, buddy. I just want to see you standing up with a quarterpounder stuffed in your face. Not lying there like some character in the opera. You want some water?"

Starsky nodded, sighed. "Well I ain't going to resign," he said.

"Who asked you to?" said Hutch, pouring from the big jug and handing it over.

"Stop being so sensible will you?" Starsky growled. "Let me do some self pity."

Hutch laughed out loud. "Drink your water," he said. "The psychs aren't coming anywhere near you for weeks yet. Yeah, I know what you're thinking."

"Shit, Hutch, once they get hold of me. It'll be mandatory and then they'll get completely on my case, there'll be that whole thing that father thing."

"Starsky, you're just down because you're sick, buddy. Forget the psychs, will you? Besides, they probably want me just as much -- who wants a cop whose mother never loved him, huh?"

Starsky drained the water. "You gotta date?"

"No, Anna's out with the girls."

"Ouch."

"I had a pretty lousy day really," Hutch mused, helping himself to the untouched black grapes on the table. "Two hours in court, four hours writing reports, no hours eating lunch, then three hours hanging round on a bum stakeout on Washington. Didn't even get to go home." He paused. "Being freelance sucks. Do you know, there are some guys that drive worse than you."

"Yeah, but not in a car as great as mine." Starsky found his eyes drooping shut. Hutch watched him for a second, then shook his head.

"There you go," he said. "I better leave you to sleep, huh?"

Starsky's eyes drifted open again. "Oh crap," he said. "I'm sorry. Can't help it."

"Hey, I won't take it personally." He tutted. "Gordo," he said, "You still look really terrible. How's the chest?"

"Feel like I'm breathing in iron filings," said Starsky.

"The dreams?"

"Oh, they come and go. Don't tell psychs."

"Starsky, will you forget psychs?"

"How can I? I feel like I'm going crazy." He glanced up at Hutch's reaction. Hutch looked thoughtful, enigmatic, concerned, but he did not move his face. He just locked eyes with his partner.

"Well you're not," he said eventually. "You may be raving and drugged out of your brain, but you're definitely not crazy." He motioned up at the TV. "Why don't you watch the tape? See if you can get beyond the first timeout tonight. I'll test you on it tomorrow."

"Really."

"Yeah, I'm going home. You need to rest." He clapped Starsky lightly on the cheek. It was hot. The brightness in the eyes was more marked. "Hang in there, buddy."

"Seeya," Starsky said. He inhaled his iron filings, closed his eyes against the sparks and knew time was about to start playing tricks on him again. Hutch felt despondent as he left. In the elevator he met Sinclair who had a really smart suit on.

"Dr Sinclair," he said at once. "Tell me how things are, how they really are."

Sinclair was used to Hutch by now. He understood he was up-front, fearless and a fiercely intelligent man and he understood the relationship with his patient. He would still gloss over things with Trisha and Nick Starsky, but he would not with Detective Hutchinson.

"You've been visiting?"

"Yes -- he doesn't seem to be getting any better."

The elevator swished evenly down to the basement where they both got out and stood in the corridor. Sinclair had his car in the staff car lot; Hutch was just following him.

"It really isn't a simple case of recovery," he said. "David survived his injuries against the odds and now he has survived double pneumonia against the odds. His whole system is too shattered to cope with the infections -- his immunity is shot to pieces and so his bloodstream gets constantly flooded with the bacteria - the drugs we give him can help but they can't seem to knock it out at the moment. It's a very delicate time, which is why he is still in ICU and monitored round the clock. We can't expect him to begin any meaningful convalescence yet. In fact we are more likely to see a relapse. None of this is surprising in medical terms, but I know it's a hard road."

"A relapse?" said Hutch in disgust.

"Baby steps," Sinclair said, hoiking his suit jacket off and putting it over his arm. "One baby step forward may see several back. What is it in particular that's concerning you, Detective?"

Hutch rubbed his eyes. "The fever, the bad dreams, the pain."

"Yes, it's very worrying."

"You're worried?"

"You think I don't worry about my seriously ill patients? Believe me, I would love to see David picking up strength, sleeping, maintaining normal temperature, but I am not surprised that he can't. I'm afraid we're in it for the long haul -- he knows that, I told him today."

"And the long term? I mean the really long term?"

"Ah, well that is harder to assess. I wouldn't bet against him getting back to work as before, although I couldn't say when that would be. Equally, I would expect him to always be susceptible to chest infections, maybe develop some respiratory weakness. But he has bounding good health in the past on his side -- and a proven stamina."

"Not much stamina now," said Hutch.

"Yes, he is very down. That's quite normal for someone in his position." He gave his sudden and rare bright smile. "David needs all the encouragement he can get right now. There is a huge psychological element in all of this. It`s very hard for patients not to get depressed when they are in a constant never-never land."

"He'll be pleased to know that," Hutch said.

"Yes, well it will be one battle at a time. I think we can worry about his state of mind when we can get him physically well. Frankly I'm just glad we have these problems to worry about. Does that kid have any idea how very close he was to homicide?"

"That kid doesn't have any idea about anything much," admitted Hutch.

They shook hands in the corridor. They both wondered about each other's job.

And Sinclair was right again.

Dobey was patched through to the squadcar in which Detective Somers was driving with Hutch on routine patrol two afternoons later. "Hutch, Memorial are looking for you. They want you to go down check out your partner straightaway. I don't know why, don't ask me."

"Damnit," said Hutch, shutting his eyes and screwing up his face as if struck by a sudden, unbearable pain.

Somers swung the car round straight away. "This is some bad scene, man," he commented, glancing sideways at the fair, statuesque profile, locked in tension.

Hutch found Starsky gone from his room and his instincts took him up the familiar corridor of ICU. Jane Dickens saw him coming and waved him into the unit silently.

Trisha was sitting by the bed again, hand held in her son's. His bed was angled so he was almost sitting upright, lost once more behind the oxygen mask where Eileen stood sentinel.

"He had another bad night," Eileen said to Hutch, "and then he began having breathing difficulties so we brought him back along here. There's effusion - some fluid on the lungs." She pointed to a catheter now running straight into Starsky's right side. "We're draining it off."

"Fluid? What does that mean?"

"It means we're not as far forward as we hoped."

Hutch came to stand by Trisha. She gave him her other hand and he squeezed it.

"Oh honey, he's so sick," she said quietly.

"Is he sedated?" Hutch asked Eileen.

"Only very lightly."

Hutch leaned forward towards Starsky, and put his cool palm on the side of the colourless face. "Come on, buddy, you can pull through this." He kept his hand there, watching the unfamiliar, familiar person laying there. It was devastating to have talked to him only a few hours before, the real Starsk, and how here he was again, trying not to die. Or maybe he was trying to die.

There were more bad nights. Tension at the precinct ratcheted up again. "Dave Starsky is still in critical condition," Dobey reported to a stony-faced squadroom, full of all the characters from around the building with whom, it had emerged, Starsky had a connection. "He's fighting for his life again."

"If he doesn't make it, Cap ..." It was Jack Bavin and all eyes turned to him. "Will the kid be protected by Juvenile?"

"If David Starsky doesn't make it then that kid is going down," Dobey said shortly. "And so is the guy who sold him the weapon. In the meantime, everybody, cut Hutch a bit of slack .. and don't give up on the guy yet."

It was all blurred and repetitive to Starsky, in his half-unconscious state, but he knew he did not want to stay in the unit, with its clanking metal machines on wheels and the strange bluey-white light. He was worried about his Mom, she sobbed so much while she was sitting there, and Hutch was struggling. Gotta jump one way or the other, Starsky thought. But which way? So easy to give in. Just a small sigh, a relaxation, and he felt he could sink out of this world forever, and not have to do this shit anymore, give everyone a break. Nicky would come through for Mom. He would, he would. Hutch would crumble, but he'd come though too in the end. Maybe there was a good career ahead for him teamed up with Jack Bavin. He could marry Annaliese, have kids, go back to college like he secretly wanted. Clem might be sad, regretting what they couldn't fix, but she was flying, she would get off on her talent, find a likeminded life-partner, take the stages of Europe by storm. Or else .... he could not give in. Not relax. He could carry on with this fighting, this battling, fix his mind on the goal of getting all these goddamned tubes out of him, out of his arm, his chest, his nose, and getting back in a normal bed. If he didn't have the tubes, then he wouldn't hurt. And if he could just stop dreaming these harsh dreams. He wanted the coloured blanket again, not these cold sheets covering his scars. He wanted a sunny day on his skin and somewhere to sit with a cold beer. He wanted Hutch to stop wearing that look that said I'm scared as hell but I'm toughing it out, and for his Mom to screech one of her laughs so they all covered their ears. He wanted Nicky to call him my pig brother with that wicked grin on his face and for Clem to say shit instead of shoot by accident and then cover her mouth. Shit, David, I've got you a ticket and you're coming to see me. Saturday night, and to the party after. And then there was that Dodgers ticket. He knew enough to know Tuesday was well past.

He woke to an empty room. For a while he just stared round it from his place in what he could tell was a fairly normal bed. It was a different room. The blanket was beige. There were flowers, and he had not been allowed flowers before. Too likely to cause an allergy. No abnormal noises. No ticking, no beeping. No tubes. Ah yes, just one tube, still the one in his elbow. But really. No iron filings. For the first time. Starsky lay there breathing in and out experimentally. He dare not breathe really deep, but he decided he had to. Like he was on a mountain top, just to see how the air was. It filled his lungs, making him feel dizzy, and then rushed out because he was too weak to hold it, but definitely no iron, just a faint ache. No flu either. There was no thirst, no hunger. For a second he thought he must be dead, but then he realized he was too tired to be dead.

Suppose he was to get up? That would be a thing. He pushed up carefully from the bed. It felt like he was suspended over an abyss. He had just moved one knee to try and angle it out of the bed, his head was buzzing and his heart had started to wallop painfully when the door of the room opened.

"And just what are you doing?"

It was Nurse Dickens. She swept into the room and got across to him before he toppled sideways out of the bed.

"Hey, Jane," said Starsky. "I think I'm going to be sick."

"Not on my watch," she said, nevertheless hunting for a basin and plumping it next to him. "What do you think you're up to? We're a ways from going walkabout, let me tell you. Stay still there. I have stuff to do in here. Still feeling nauseous?"

"Maybe."

"OK. Not a problem. Let me tell you what's what. You listening?"

"Do I have a choice?"

"It's Saturday afternoon. You've been back in the unit in a terrible state for three and a half days, but we brought you here last night when the doctors confirmed that your lungs were clear again. The infection seems to be back under control, you slept a proper sleep overnight and you've had all drugs except the painkillers withdrawn. How's that?"

"And if you withdrew those?"

"You'd feel like a horse had kicked you."

"Right."

"We do want to get you out of bed, but it has to be done in stages. First we sit you up a bit, then a bit more, then we hang around on the side of the bed, then we take a step or two. That's going to take up the rest of the afternoon. Sprinting can resume tomorrow maybe."

"I've gone off the idea."

"Sure you have. Well I have a few messages for you. Hutch says he'll be in in the morning, he has something to go to tonight. Your Mom is coming by later today."

"And when am I going home?"

She stopped and looked at him. "That's a good question, David. Let's say well, not this week."

"And how long since they wheeled my sorry ass in here?"

"Three weeks yesterday your buddies brought you into the ER."

"And how am I doing?"

"Today you're doing lovely. Tomorrow we can't say. Any more questions?"

Starsky shook his head. Jane Dickens smiled at him. "Good, you lay quiet and if you're no trouble I'll be back in ten minutes or so to sit you up. Do you need anything? Nausea any worse?" He shook his head again and she tutted humorously. "You know, your partner says you normally never shut up."

"Really."

"Really." She produced the eartherm as if doing a magic trick. "Hmm, up a few points, but nothing like as bad as you have been."

He watched as she swept out and then he lay there and thought about three weeks yesterday. It was the first time he had cornered enough conscious free time to do it. He had said something to Jay, hadn't he, when he saw it coming? What happened then it was fuzzy. What had he said? He must have warned him, or Jay would surely have taken it instead. There was a filmic quality to the scene in his head. He remembered the rain pulsing down, and the car ride, although not the arrival here. Somewhere in the car it all got lost. He recalled fighting with Hutch to get at the knife. He could hear Hutch's voice, entreating him to hang on, and he did not even know how to hang on, he felt as if some force was pulling him through the floor of the car. As he felt again the sensation of the metal inside him a cold little wave broke over his shoulders and seemed to travel all the way down to his feet. He could hear his own voice saying oh god oh god oh god Hutch and he remembered so clearly why -- it was the realization that his own blood was pumping out of him with every heartbeat, the realization that a long-bladed knife held in the hands of a teenager was going to kill him. Starsky was still convinced it would kill him. He may be breathing again, lying here with a rational head, weeks now since they somehow got it out, but the imprint of the blade was still in there, would always be, until such time as it killed him.

Hutch came in next morning and found Starsky sitting by the bed in a chair. He was still attached to a mobile drip and an oxygen tank and mask was at his elbow, but he was sitting up properly, with no pillows.

"Well look at you," Hutch said admiringly. Inside, his stomach lurched to see the grimly pale, shadowy features, all the more stark when not framed by the disguise of the white bed. Starsky evidently knew what he was thinking.

"I guess I look as bad as I feel."

Hutch came and perched on the bed. "What they say?"

"They say things can only get better."

"Right."

Starsky smiled wanly, wanting to comfort him. "Oh don't look so worried. It's not so bad. I walked to the john earlier on."

"Really."

"Yup. And I ate some sloppy stuff, some clear soup, that kind of shit."

"And what's that for?" Hutch motioned at the tank and mask.

"Emergencies. It's OK, I don't think I have to walk round with one forever. Where would it go in the car? Not between us."

"The backseat maybe," Hutch hazarded. "But you don't need it right now?"

"Nope. I think it's just my mobile ICU. My lung is shot to pieces, Sinclair said so, so what can I do? Anyway, never mind that." He sounded suddenly impatient. "Tell me what's going on, anything not to do with this place."

"Where to start?" wondered Hutch. "Dobey gave up his diet."

"Again?"

"Well I think it was a new one."

"And who are you working with?"

"Somers sometimes. Bavin sometimes."

"Jack Bavin, what a treat. Does he still hate me?"

"Well he seems to find you a little obnoxious, what can I tell you? We wrapped up a couple of cases and then there's a pile of others that can wait until you get back."

Starsky skipped over this. "How's Annaliese?"

"Busy. Gorgeous. Flirting with some guy from the DA's office. She'd love to come and see you, so she says."

"Oh, I shall grant her an audience, sooner or later."

"Is Clem around?"

"Off to New York next week, with some Russian guy."

"You know, this Sergey is just her partner - her dance partner."

"Yeah really."

"No she told me. They rehearse together a lot, and they hang out talking about the steps and that kinda stuff."

"Well it doesn't matter anyway. The split is final."

"She says?"

"She says, I says."

Hutch looked gloomy, and then remembered he was supposed to be the cheery one. "Look, you gotta tell me what you want me to bring in, Starsk. You're gonna be here for a while, might as well do our best to make it bearable."

"Well, you could bring my laptop. My Gameboy. And some games. Some music. Hey, yeah, my tennis racket and I'd kind of like to see my car."

Hutch snickered. Bavin always moaned how Starsky had to resort to humor when things were supposed to be serious. "OK, I get the picture. And what about the queue of visitors? I feel like your social secretary - everyone comes to me to make an appointment."

"Well unfortunately the doc seems to think I should keep laying low."

"Oh?"

"They're worried about someone bringing me in a fat little bacterium on my grapes." Hutch stared down at himself.

"You, Mom and Nicky are clean, apparently, or at least I don't seem to mind your germs - Clem's OK as long as she doesn't jump around too much, but she always does."

"Man, that's tough."

"Maybe."

"You're right. Perhaps you ought to have a longer break before Huggy comes in here fresh out of the Pits."

"How the hell is Huggy?"

"He's busy," said Hutch. "Being a bar manager. Bavin won't go near him and Huggy thinks he's a jerk so there we go. Hug rings me for an update on you twice a day. Listen, I saw Nick earlier. Said he's going back to New York tomorrow."

"Yeah, he's had enough. He's going to lose his job if he doesn't get his butt back home, and in any case he's doctored out."

"And your Mom?"

"She'll be here until I'm given a clean bill of health or else carried out of here with my toes turned up. The school have given her compassionate leave, but she doesn't care anyhow, you know how she is. I'm going to be looked after to death." Starsky glanced at the door and then at the clock on the wall. "Eileen, or Jane, or someone, are going to be in in a minute to make me go lie down again. Can you believe it?"

"Buddy, looking at you, I can believe it."

In another two weeks the first new visitors were allowed. The room at Memorial became a drop-in centre, the recovering Starsky a magnet to the precinct. It was a new experience for them - fatalities were not uncommon, but clawing back from the prognosis they all knew Dave Starsky had been given most certainly was and he was seemingly designated the status of some kind of holy grail. Hutch just held his breath. He knew, because Sinclair had told him, that they could still lose him from here. He understood, the way Starsky himself did, the way that psychs almost certainly did, that you didn't get that near to being stabbed to death without the result leaving a hold on you, leaving you on the edge of a cliff over which it could pick you up and drop you, suddenly, at will. This was true even as Starsky finally began to look more like himself, even when he eventually re-established his fond relationship with food, even when he could at last take a walk outside and breathe in the smoggy, sunny air of downtown. Sinclair let Hutch and Trisha take him for a day trip to the beach shortly after that. He was not allowed beach games but sat behind his dark glasses and let the sun seep into him. Two months in hospital clocked up.

Then Dobey was there for the all-important meeting. He had been in long negotiations with Ron Chapman, the union rep, as well as Chief Ryan, Deputy McMichaels, Dr Sinclair and someone from psychs. Hutch had been kept out of all these preliminaries and he and Starsky had speculated much about what was in store. Instead of going into the precinct one Monday morning, Hutch went straight to Memorial and found Dobey already having coffee in Starsky's room.

"Hutchinson," he said when Hutch entered.

"Captain," said Hutch, feeling like he should stand to attention. Starsky, dressed, was sitting on the side of his bed with a Styrofoam cup in his lap. He looked anxious, an unusual look for him.

"Sit down, let's get started."

Hutch lowered his limbs into the chair, tangling a quick glance with his partner.

"OK," said Dobey, waving a sheaf of papers at them. "This is the first of a series of meetings we're going to have. This is just to let you know where we're at. It's a standard procedure for all long-term medical cases."

"Long-term medical cases?" echoed Starsky.

"Yes, you know perfectly well you won't be back at work next week. We don't yet know when you will be back. That's why we have to have these meetings." Dobey sounded incredibly bad-tempered. They both knew it was tension.

"Hum," said Starsky. "Go on, then, Cap."

"Dr Sinclair thinks you may be out of this place pretty soon." Hutch gave Starsky a congratulatory face. "But you will be at home convalescing for let's say, a while. Dr Sinclair wants to assess on a rolling basis. He has you down for six weeks at home before your first major check-up. If that went well, and with the agreement of psychiatric services - don't look at me like that, Dave - then we would set a preliminary date for phased-in return to work. If Sinclair feels you need more time, then you get that and we go for a second preliminary date."

"OK," said Hutch, "so say we get to the check-up and Starsk is still not quite there so Sinclair says another month another check-up -"

"With the agreement, in there, of psych-"

"Yeah, we got that, Cap. Psychs are in there. So another check-up. Suppose he's not quite ready then, what's the scenario?"

Dobey scratched his moustache and Starsky looked at the ceiling. "That's when we would need to discuss .."

"Medical retirement," Starsky said.

"Yes, but we're hoping not to get to that. Sinclair is hoping we won't need to look at it."

"What's the cut-off time?" Hutch said. "Because we know that's what you guys have been negotiating."

"Six months," Dobey said. "From the time of the incident."

They looked at each other. "Where are we now?" Starsky muttered.

"Two months, just over," Dobey said, shuffling the papers. "You should know, Dave, that Chapman was going for six months from now."

"But?"

"The Chief and McMichaels couldn't go for it."

"Of course they couldn't," said Hutch.

"And just how do psychs fit into all this?" Starsky demanded in a surprisingly robust voice.

Dobey's eyebrow went up. "They confer with Sinclair at the time of your assessment."

"Just confer?"

"OK, you have a session with them and a session with Sinclair and then they confer." Another paper shuffle. "Psychs have to be in the loop all the way through."

"I can't refuse to see them?"

"No, not without previously agreed sick time being withdrawn, with the result that the Chief will take you permanently off roster and start negotiating your retirement deal. That's the way it is."

Starsky gave a distracted nod and then immediately went on to his next tack. "So what happens to Hutch during all this time I'm sat on my ass?"

"Well, for a start, buddy, you won't be sat on your ass," Hutch interrupted before Dobey could reply. "You'll be out there getting fit, doing what the doctor says."

Starsky sent a baleful look his way and then concentrated on Dobey again. Dobey kept his face serious, neutral, but he was delighted that Starsky was being so scratchy. It meant he had not given up. "Hutch will be re-assigned," he said. "It's not yet decided with whom. There may be a secondment on offer over in Narcotics. We have to have a separate meeting about all that, when we know what time-frame we're looking at. For now, you're with Somers."

"Beautiful," said Hutch. Somers was a nice guy, but he had to be nannied. Hutch never felt like his back was covered. He would trust a half-fit Starsky with his life over any guy in the precinct.

"So that's the way it is," Dobey concluded. "Any questions?"

"Can I appeal any of the medical or psych results? Get a second opinion?"

Dobey attempted not to smile. It was an incredible relief to him that Dave Starsky was prepared to worry this like a bone; he had feared he would shrug and let things happen. "You can try," he said. "But I can tell you, Chief Ryan will block it."

"He'd rather throw money at Starsky to make him go away?" asked Hutch. Not a nod, not a blink. Just a stare.

"I suggest we don't go there just now," Dobey said calmly. "At the moment you're still in here."

Four days later he was back in his apartment having requested a rather secretive departure from the hospital to pre-empt any attempts to throw a welcome home party. Trisha had stocked the place full to bursting. She installed herself on the couch that became a bed and the oxygen tank was wheeled into a dark corner and disguised with a jacket and hat. Between now and the six-week assessment he was obliged to take plenty of bed rest, gentle walking as exercise, preferably away from roads, a program of physical therapy, consume stamina-building foods and avoid stress and excitement.

"Avoid excitement?" he said when Sinclair had listed this requirement as he and Hutch left Memorial carrying the remains of the books and discs that had accumulated of late. "What, like no ball games on the tv? No mouse-racing at Huggy Bear's? And doesn't being driven home in Hutch's car count as stress?"

Sinclair let him go on. "Be sensible, David," he said. "Don't put yourself through anything un-necessary, that's all. You could be back in here in a twinkle if you crash back into life." Hutch made a face. It was hard to imagine Starsky doing anything with life other than crashing into it. "As your doctor, I expect you to play a part in taking care of yourself. Your Mom and Hutch here will do the rest."

"This is going to be awful," said Starsky when they got into Hutch's car. "Starting right here." He tried to find a comfortable position but couldn't.

Hutch laughed. "I'm looking forward to it - just think, we can tell you to shut up whenever we like."

For maybe three weeks Starsky was grateful for the quiet life that Trisha insisted on. It became clear that he needed to sleep, in his own time, in his own bed. And, come to that, on the couch, in chairs and in the bath. All of a sudden there seemed to be no limit to his fatigue. Up late, a slow stroll up to Third Street for breakfast, a rest on the couch with the papers, lunch and then more sleep, backgammon with Trisha or chess with Hutch on his days off, a bit of TV, some phone calls, dinner, a book and then hours more sleep. Life had never been like this before. He got into the routine quickly, without a struggle, but it seemed otherworldly to him. He commented to Hutch that he really felt like he had been put on pause back there in the canal basin at that moment he had said Jay, a blade, and he was still there. The physical therapy started, short sessions that left him wanting to weep at his own weakness and the deep, unrelenting pain that it left behind. Hutch came with him to every session, not anticipating how gruelling it would be to see his friend dragging himself through the exercises, throwing up afterwards, clinging to him for the strength to compose himself again before Hutch delivered him back to Trisha. Before him loomed the six-week assessment.

"Don't get stressed about it," Hutch advised. He was highly stressed himself. He was frustrated at not being with Starsky all the time, but almost unable to bear what he was going through in his recovery. For two weeks he had worked with Somers and after that Jack Bavin, Starsky's nemesis, who, even in the light of his near-fatal wounding was unable to stay very complimentary about Hutch's partner for long. Bavin was a good cop, reliable, smart, rock-solid, but the constant barbing about other cops, and Starsky in particular, wore Hutch down. He did not mention any of this to Starsky whose blood-pressure frequently went through the roof concerning Jack Bavin.

The assessment was in three parts. The precinct medic, Stephanie Bukowitz, put him through a light training session in the gym which left him light-headed; and then he went straight up to psychs, room 582, which was home to the free counselling service and which creaked and groaned under the pressure of failing marriages, alcohol, depression and post-traumatic stress. Except for the annual mandatory session neither Starsky nor Hutch had ever requested an appointment and they had never been inside the room.

"You expected a torture chamber?" the main psychiatric services counselor observed when Starsky came in and stared around. "David Starsky, right? Detective Sergeant first class, on long-term sick leave." He was a gimlet-eyed, spare man who managed to look relaxed while his six-foot something frame sat bolt upright in a hard chair. Next to him a woman counselor smiled briefly.

"This is your six-week assessment?" she asked. There was a fat file on the desk in front of the psychs guy, and an empty sheet of paper in front of her. Dry-mouthed, Starsky nodded.

"Sit down, Detective, and don't look so freaked. All we do is talk. No hypnotism, no funny mind-games, no Oedipus or Freud."

They talked, asking lots of questions. Why he joined the force. Had he ever been injured before. Had he lost many colleagues during his time. Did he have coping mechanisms for the dangers of the job. Exactly what happened that day. They concentrated on small aspects of the episode - the realisation he had been seriously hurt, his memory of what Jay and Hutch had said to him in the car, what he had understood about his treatment, what he remembered about the first two weeks in the hospital. How he thought Hutch was dealing with it.

"Hutch? He's doing fine."

"I'm sure you're right," said the woman. They had seen Jason Dean frequently since the event, but that was confidential. They had expected Hutchinson, knowing about the relationship. Dobey had said to them that he was edgy.

"It can be hard," said psychs guy. "To be present at an event such as this, to see your partner - your close friend - take such a hit. Your memory is all episodic, patchy. He will have a much longer-running scenario in his mind, with everything connecting."

They watched Detective Starsky thinking hard about this. His last mandatory session had yielded up observations that he was confident without being arrogant, droll in the face of personal peril, and apparently aware that his superiors considered him a little reckless on occasion. Hutchinson's sessions always generated comments about his sensitivity to the heavy end of police work, which was why they had been expecting him. They knew he took half-inderal for panic attacks. They knew he had problems with alcohol as a college student. But no Hutch.

"I'm not sure you should use Starsky to get his partner in here," the psychs guy had said to his colleague before today's session. "This is his time. He may be in a bad way."

She was unrepentant. "Needs must," she said. "If Detective Starsky is struggling then we will deal with that over time. Come on, Richard, it's all part of the same thing. If this guy gets back to work anytime, he won't be needing a partner who's been left to slide. We know these guys have this protective thing - it may work."

When Hutch rang him to see how it went, Starsky, who, it was noted, had left the session more nervous than when he entered, was laidback. "It was fine, fine. You were right. Nothing to worry out. They were OK. No father stuff, just concentrating on . Well, what you'd think. I take back what I said."

Hutch thought about this on his end of the line. "So you don't think they're going to screw you?"

Starsky suspected that they probably were. He wondered how the woman counselor didn't get cramps in her hand she did so much scribbling, and the psychs guy, whose name he could not even remember, had had this narrowed-eyed thing going on. They wanted him back and he manifestly did not want to go, but he was not in a position to refuse. Hutch, on the other hand, could make a choice, given the right encouragement. "I don't think so. Hey, I quite enjoyed it."

"Yeah, right, don't give me that."

"OK, I didn't enjoy it but it was OK."

"OK is one thing, Starsk. Question is, did it help?"

Starsky hesitated. "It got me thinking straight," he said, willing his voice to come out light at the other end. "I'm cool to go back."

"Well good," said Hutch. "Listen, I'll catch you later. Take it easy."

"Man I can't do anything else."

Seeing Sinclair at Memorial constituted the last leg of the assessment. Hutch took him in the Torino and was gratified that Sinclair said he could sit in. He had not seen the scars before. They were shocking, made him feel a queasy combination of anger and terror and it brought back to him what that kid had taken from his friend. Chunks of his being, never to be replaced. Sinclair said they were healing well and the shark-chewing effect would continue to wear off.

"It will always be impressive," he said, as Starsky shrugged his t-shirt back on. "So, David, tell me. Sleeping?"

"Through the night," said Starsky.

"Dreams?"

"Not so much."

"But still?"

"Say, one night in seven. Five maybe."

"Pain?"

"Only when I laugh."

"The gym tests were good. Very good even." Sinclair waved a folder at him. "You want to read?" Starsky shook his head. Sinclair offered them to Hutch. He had abandoned protocol with these two weeks ago. Hutch snapped it up eagerly and read it while Sinclair did blood pressure, temperature, respiratory function. When he looked up again Starsky was blowing up a green balloon through a metal tube while red lights flashed on a console.

"Tough?" Sinclair asked.

"Not so easy."

"It's a similar reading we'd see in an asthmatic," the doctor observed. "But, as usual, better than I would have predicted at this stage. Room for improvement."

Starsky pointed at the other file on the desk. "Psychs?"

"Indeed." Sinclair did not pick it up. He was not likely to give that one to Hutch, or even to Starsky. "They want you back."

"And you? Come on, Doc, level with us. Are you going to give me a preliminary return date?"

Sinclair regarded him thoughtfully. "I could on the basis of your physical tests, David, no problem. Everything is looking good. I'm sure lung capacity will get better, although as I've repeatedly told you there could be permanent effects, whether you get back to work or not. Psychiatric services don't recommend preliminary return."

Starsky took a breath. "What, over a few lousy nightmares?"

"It's not insignificant."

"Oh come on! It's not going to stop me getting through a day on the streets."

"I can't ignore it."

"Oh crap, I knew it! I knew it would be fucking psychs that would bury me."

"Stay calm," advised Sinclair mildly, "or I'll have to take your obs again." He glanced at Hutch. "I am obliged to take their recommendations into account. I support their wish to see you for some further sessions. I also want to re-do your respiratory function tests on a weekly basis so I can record incremental improvement. Without these two things, there's no going back on the street. I will let your Captain know that I want you to have another month. A training regime is being designed for you, so you'll be coming in to the precinct, and you'll be seeing psychiatric services weekly. We will all do another assessment to see you if we can set that date."

"No pressure then," muttered Starsky sourly.

"Plenty of pressure," Sinclair said. "My advice now? Would be to push yourself a bit. I think it's normal to hold off after you've been through the things you have - but it's make or break time. See what causes pain, breathlessness. Let psychs do their worst, see how it affects you. Basically, David, you have my permission to live your life again. Frankly it could be risky, but it's the only way."

Constantly watching his partner push himself to the limit sent Hutch into a tailspin. After another week at home Starsky attempted to despatch Trisha back to New York. She immediately rang Hutch.

"He says he's fine, Ken, he says he'll be back at work anytime now and I have to go. Is he fine?"

Hutch, strung out by another week sitting next to Jack Bavin, felt the grumblings of irritation over the whole affair.

"Trisha, I'm not a goddamned doctor."

Trisha, a bit like her older son, passed over the bad temper as if it had never happened. "Yes, but you know."

Hutch rubbed his eyes. "I think he maybe needs you to go home now."

A wounded silence on the end of the line. Goddamnit. "Really?"

"Really. Sinclair wants him to try things out on his own."

"That's not possible," Trisha said. "I mean, I can go home, sure I can. But he can't do this on his own. He has to have you."

And there, that was it. Hutch knew it, knew it as well as he knew anything in this world. He so wanted to go away for a while, take a long vacation, with Anna, or even maybe on his own, empty his mind of all this shit, let Starsky sink or swim, not feel guilty, not feel responsible. It was crap to feel like this. Starsk wasn't even leaning on him. He was going for it with as little help as possible, but Hutch could not lose his fear. He saw this annoying, amazing, brave guy he loved teetering on the edge of this precipice and he had the overwhelming feeling that he was going to go over. He had had the feeling since ICU, since their silent communication.

"He's got me, Trish," Hutch said blankly.

"So you think it's OK for me to go?"

Hutch took a few more seconds and then gathered everything he had momentarily let slide and plumped it back on his shoulders once again. "I think it's OK, Trish. I'm on his case."

"Oh honey, if it wasn't for you there wouldn't be a case."

Not sure of that, Hutch thought. I was in charge that day. Taking the lead. I got them both to be so damned careful that they weren't ready. I wasn't ready. We didn't see it coming and we should have done. Starsky and me should have done. We're the experienced ones. I should have done. I was taking the lead. I should have seen it. When these familiar thoughts stopped teeming around his brain he felt an urge to go and get a beer. For a second he hesitated with the next decision and then made it and took a diazepam.

While Jack Bavin muttered and wondered about the wisdom of it, Starsky came into Metro and began to do sessions in the gym. It gave him the creeps to see Bavin and Hutch sat together in the squadroom, working together quietly, so he didn't go there. He did corner Jay Dean down in the cafeteria and bought him a coffee.

"How's Hutch doing, Jay?"

Jay Dean could hardly credit seeing Dave Starsky upright on his feet, walking and talking, making faces about the coffee, his face split in the familiar huge smile whenever someone new acknowledged his presence with delight.

"Hutch?"

"Uh-huh. You know, my partner. You may have seen him. Six foot. Blond. Kinda dopey-looking."

"Well, he's doing OK."

"Think he's alright with Bavin?"

Jay made a face. "Listen, man, no-one likes to work with Bavin. But Hutch seems to be able to do it. They've had a pretty impressive arrest rate. Not sure your buddy's enjoying it though."

"Listen, Jay, do me a favour will you?"

"Anything, man."

"Keep an eye on him will you? I'm kinda keeping busy with all this recovery shit, and I need to know he's alright."

"Well, sure, Dave, but like how?"

Starsky considered him. He was young, after all, not yet wised-up to some stuff. But he was sharp. He liked Hutch. He was a good cop. "I think Hutch is being a little hard on himself. Think he feels bad about what happened. Probably needs some panic pills."

"Hutch?" said Jay.

Starsky smiled a little. "We all have our weak spots." He looked nervously across the cafeteria then. "He'd be pretty pissed if he knew I was saying this to you."

"Listen, man," Jay said. "I was there, remember. I was driving, but Hutch was sitting there with you bleeding all over him."

Starsky thought for a second. Then he said, "Have you been to psychs?"

"Sure," said Jay. "Why not? Hasn't Hutch?"

Starsky shook his head. "Nope. He's toughing it out."

"And you?"

"Sure, I'm never outa there," Starsky said gloomily.

"It's OK," Jay said. "I mean, they're OK. Not too heavy. It's been good to talk it out. They seem to know stuff." He cleared his throat and Starsky grinned at him a little wanly. They certainly did. Starsky always left there feeling like he'd been through a wringer.

The final assessment was in Dobey's office. It was coming up for five months since the incident that everyone at Metro described simply as "La Cuenca". A full house. Dobey, leading the meeting. Dr Sinclair, serious as ever. The guy from psychs, whose name, even now, kept escaping Starsky. Hutch, ready to be the rock if the bad news came. Starsky, suspicious, his confidence in a small puddle, in the most comfortable chair. There were few preliminaries from Dobey. He already knew the outcome. It was just a formality now.

The psychs guy addressed mostly Dobey, but he did not have much to say. He had absolutely no qualms about passing Detective Starsky fit for a return to work. He did not even recommend mandatory counselling - just advised a regular session, but entirely at Starsky's discretion. Discretion? thought Starsky, giving Hutch a look that said he was close to breaking out in near-hysterical laughter. Since when have I had any discretion? But OK, I can play ball with these looney-tunes guys as long as they're not forcing me. When his turn came, Sinclair did much more talking. He addressed nearly all his comments directly to his patient, for which Starsky was grateful, occasionally bringing in Hutch with a glance. He went over the medical history from the moment Starsky had been taken into the ER, and hearing it all again made Hutch want to puke. Whatever Sinclair was going to say, he knew Starsky was still on the precipice, and he understood now that he would be there always. The physical results were good, Sinclair went on, maybe not as good as he had hoped, but still impressive given the circumstances. Starsky had passed all Berkowitz's tests, and, he pointed out, even the fittest of officers did not always do that. There was not much doubt about his continued ability to function as a police officer, to uphold the standards expected, to operate in the manner specified by his department, and needed by his partner. His was a remarkable recovery. But .... Starsky had been waiting for the but as soon as Sinclair had opened his mouth, although Hutch, jogging along in all the hopeful prose, was shocked by it. Some of the damage was never going to go away. He was missing a piece of lung. His immunity could be described as weak. There would likely be a liftetime of susceptibility to certain infections which could prove dangerous if not fatal. A lifetime too of dependency on certain medication. These were facts that could not be put aside, and, he realised, would have a strong effect on the decision that the Chief of Police would make. His own recommendation, like the guy from psychs, was that Starsky could go back on the streets. He held up the sheet of A4 addressed to the Chief with the words "Passed fit for return to work." on it. Smiling, he waved it a bit, like a flag. Neither Starsky or Hutchinson spoke. They just looked at each other.

Later that afternoon word came from the Chief. Dobey leaned out of his office and bellowed. "Starsky! Get yourself and your partner in here!" He slammed the door behind them as they came in, shutting out the squadroom who were pretending they were not all trying to listen in.

Dobey looked at them standing there, shoulders touching. His best boys. They looked totally strung out, both of them.

"OK then," he said gruffly.

"OK then?" echoed Hutch, swivelling his gaze between the Captain and his partner.

"The Chief will go for it," said Dobey.

Starsky continued to stand, frozen.

"Yes, he uh ... was not completely happy. Worried about some of things Sinclair said. But he'll go for it. Your return date has been set for Monday two weeks away. Half days only."

Hutch did not say a word. He took three steps across Dobey's office, stuck out his hand to grip the Captain's, then turned to Starsky who was still rooted to his spot. In the corridor, privately, after the first meeting, Sinclair had said to Hutch that it all came down to him, to stand guard on the precipice. "It doesn't appear in the report or recommendations," he said. "But your role is key, Detective. You understand all this, I know. You are the eyes and ears on how things are. Your care and support is over-arching. He cannot do this without you." Hutch had nodded, half gratified, half despondent. "But, you need to take care of yourself too. Get your own house in order, as we say in England. Take up the services that are offered, that's all. I'm going to remain David's physician. I shall be interested to hear how things go." That rare smile, lightening the mood a little. Then they had shaken hands in mutual respect and liking.

In Dobey's office, taking hold of Starsky's shoulders and giving them a little shake Hutch said, "See? See? I told you so." Then he pulled Starsky into his chest with a crunch, saying something very quietly in his ear that Dobey could not hear. Starsky, coming out of his pose, clung on to him for a second.

"Until then!" Dobey snapped, making them both jump. "You are both on vacation. I want you both out of here. I am sick of the sight of you. I am sick of the sight of your reports. So ... beat it."

"Cap," said Hutch weakly, hanging on to Starsky's arm as they staggered for the door. "We're beaten." Dobey just waited to hear the door bang shut, listened out for the sound of whooping and cheering in the squadroom, and then lowered himself into his chair with shaky legs.

****************************************************

Warm, fuggy Bay City weather, a slight breeze, dry, the smell of heat coming off the sidewalk. Hutch, tanned from the islands, sweating it out in the gym first thing and getting to work smothered in good health, but checking his pocket like he does over and over for the half-inderal. Starsky, thin as a rake, arriving late at Metro with a Danish in his mouth like a dog with a bone, rattling with pain-killers and with a stack of ventolin inhalers in a bag which he shoves in a drawer. Dobey grumpy with indigestion and pressure from Deputy McMichaels. A pile of reports sitting on the desk and slow-burning chaos in the corridor and squadroom.

A day like any other. Just a regular day, but never ordinary again.