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Miriam Elizabeth Cooper

"Detective Starsky--"

"Shut up."

"We just--"

"Shut up, I said."


"You, too, Mr. The-Sun-Shines-Outta-My-Ass. Shut up, the both of you. I'm done."

"You are not done, Detective. You've barely even started. In fact, the only thing I've seen getting any exercise around here so far is your mouth."

Hutch had to hand it to her; she didn't even flinch when Starsky tilted forward with his silent reply.

"If your injury were a C7 or C8, Detective, I might call that finger movement impressive," she said calmly. "However, being that you are a pissy little T10, which, believe me, we all thank our various deities for, I'm going to have to call it downright indolent, not to mention rude and immature."

Tough lady, Bevens. She'd clearly been around, and so had developed a highly polished set of armor against even the most recalcitrant of patients--a description which Starsky pretty much embodied. Not to mention the fact that she could get away with using "pissy" and "indolent" in the same sentence, and effectively, too. That wasn't something you could say about a lot of people.

Hutch liked her. He liked her for her sharp mind, and the coolness that wasn't coldness, and because as a physical therapist, she was more than just competent. And he liked her because she had always, always called Starsky by his title: Detective. Not Mr. Starsky, and not Dave, as he had introduced himself. Detective Starsky.

Starsky liked her too, usually.

When Hutch looked up now, though, after briefly and successfully struggling against a laugh (it wasn't so difficult a feat, anymore), he got one good glimpse at the expression on his partner's face and realized that he needed to diffuse the situation before somebody in the room wound up a wanted felon. He clamped down on Starsky's wrist with one hand, took a gentle, guiding hold of Lark Bevens' thick upper arm with the other. "Uh, Ms. Bevens, could you maybe give us a minute?"

She glanced down at her arm, then back up into Hutch's face; there was no mistaking the message. He released her hastily. "Sorry, just, ah--"

"We have the room for sixty minutes this afternoon, gentlemen," she informed them crisply. "And ten of those are already down the crapper. Keep that in mind."

"Right, okay," Hutch said to her back, and then, "Thanks," to the almost-slammed door.

"Would you let go of me, for God's sake?" Starsky burst out even before Hutch had a chance to refocus himself. "I'd kinda like to be free to move the parts of me that actually work like they're s'posed to!"

An unexpected jolt of anger caught Hutch off-guard, and he yielded his partner's wrist too forcefully; Starsky grunted a bit out of the middle of his throat but otherwise said nothing. Hutch watched him readjust his hand on the bar, chapped fingers curling taut around the metal.

"What's with you?" he asked tightly, then swiped his arm through the air at Starsky's incredulous look. "Okay, okay. Look--" Hutch closed his eyes for a minute, reached for the seemingly unending reserve of compassion and patience which had been divinely bestowed upon him weeks ago. He was having a little trouble locating it, lately. "Look," he said again, finally, and it was gentle; target locked. "How about we do this, huh? Just you and me. We can leave Bevens out of it for awhile. She's probably out having a smoke by now anyway."

Starsky made another small, grunt-like noise, followed by a short huff of air through his nostrils; this was to be the new mode of communication, apparently.

Hutch came around and stepped in between the bars, planting himself directly in front of his friend. "Okay, partner, adelante. Let's go."

He didn't miss Starsky's knuckles paling, or the winking beads of sweat that jumped into the crease of his brow; he didn't miss them, but he ignored them, smiled encouragingly. Starsky breathed in deeply and then, without breathing out, moved forward in that awful, stiff way that Hutch hated in his heart. "Thatta boy," he said lightly, shifting backward as Starsky inched toward him.

It was short-lived, though. Starsky came to a dead stop after only a few half-steps, all his breath coming out in one shaky flood.

Hutch tried gamely not to let his smile waver. "No way, Starsk, you're not getting off that easy. Keep going, come on."

A slender line of perspiration plunged down Starsky's cheek as his head came up. Jesus, how had his hair gotten wet so fast? "Hutch," he puffed, "I can't, okay? I can't."

"What're you talkin' about," Hutch scoffed, holding tight to the kindness in his voice. "'Course you can. You've been doing the parallel bars for almost two weeks now. Got practically halfway across the other day without even resting, right? Piece of cake."

Starsky's short bark of laughter was so startling, so harsh, that Hutch felt his whole upper body pull back of its own volition. "Piece of cake," his partner echoed, shaking his head, loosing more salty droplets. "Piece of fucking cake, huh?"

"You know what I'm saying," Hutch sighed, looking at the ceiling.

"Yeah. You're saying that this is kid's stuff, like some kinda game. Just like riding a bicycle, right, or learning to swim? No big deal, just suck it up and go." He shook his head again, the gesture brimming with frustration.

Hutch echoed it. "All right, so you obviously don't know what I'm saying, because that ain't it. I would never imply that this is easy for you or for anyone. I just meant that I know you can do it. I've seen you do it."

"You've seen what? You've seen me hobblin' up here like some old geezer, hangin' onto the bars for dear life? You've seen me get maybe three feet on my own steam before I'm practically passin' out on the floor?"

"Don't you belittle that," Hutch growled, surprising himself; he hadn't remembered letting go of the kindness. "Don't you piss on that, Starsky. Every step you take is a miracle. The fact that you're able to stand here on your own strength and have a conversation with me is a miracle."

"Doesn't feel like a fucking miracle," Starsky growled back. "Hey, forget about that I can hardly get one foot in front of the other. I got sores in places I bet you don't even know exist, buddy. I'm lucky if I can get a spoonful of Jell-O partway down my throat before it starts comin' back up again, and I'm lucky if I make it from the bed to the bathroom without shitting my pants. Hell, I'm lucky if--"

"You're just plain lucky, Starsky! When the hell are you going to get that through your skull?" He latched onto Starsky's biceps, barely resisting the urge to shake him. "Drop the self-pity shit, okay? You should be damned grateful for what happens in here every day. Fuck that, you should be celebrating it!"

"Celebrating?" Starsky sputtered. "You think--"

"Goddamn right I do. The puke, the shit in your pants, the sores on your butt or on your dick or wherever--you know what that is? That's life. That's the stuff we are. It's how you know you beat Gunther, beat the hell outta him. It's--it's being awake. It's how you know you're here."

Starsky swallowed audibly, dipped his head; there was a quick flash of pink as he ran his tongue across his lips. "It hurts, Hutch," he said, his voice suddenly tired again, raw; and the blow of the words to Hutch's stomach made him suppress a gasp. "And--my legs--"

"But that's it, too," Hutch forced out, his face pinched with the effort. "All that pain, your muscles screamin' when you move--you gotta celebrate it, Starsk, and let it be your celebration. I do. You know it kills me to see you hurting, but, God--I do."

The cadence of Starsky's breathing had altered subtly. Hutch slowly released one of his partner's arms, reaching up and around to the damp curls just at the base of his neck; at the touch, Starsky let out a single sob, a hot, gravelly thing that seemed almost like a separate entity, bursting free of its cell in the deepest part of him.

Hutch immersed his fingers completely in the soft hair, pulled Starsky's dark head against his shoulder. He heard another, muffled sob, and rested his mouth low at Starsky's ear.

"I love you, you understand that? Jesus," Hutch choked, and pressed Starsky more fiercely against him.

There was a slight motion against his skin; Starsky nodding, telling him he knew, he knew, thank you, love you, too. And Hutch remembered just minutes ago, watching as that beloved, once agile body labored agonizingly for a few short steps, what had really been in his heart then. He groaned without sound, and found that he had to pull away; gently, though. His hypocrisy was not Starsky's fault.

"Do you, uh, you think we oughta get Bevens back in here before she starts foaming at the mouth?"

"Yeah, 'kay," Starsky answered a bit hoarsely. He was wiping his eyes and cheeks with the back of his hand.

"'Kay," Hutch repeated, and left his friend to go to the door, swiftly rubbing at his own eyes with the heel of his palm. There was, he swore, a discernible snap when his neck jerked back, as startled as the rest of him to find Lark Bevens in the doorway practically breathing on his face. How long had she been standing there?

"Hi," Hutch said, when he'd recovered slightly. "I was just coming to invite you back--"

"To my own PT room? How kind of you."

"Well--maybe 'invite' is the wrong word..." But she was already moving past him. Shrugging, Hutch let the door swing shut and followed, retreating once again to the sidelines as she took her place with Starsky.

For a few moments, there was silence in the room; pure, dense but not uneasy. Hutch felt Bevens' sharp eyes lingering upon him, and he looked up, met her gaze directly. He saw wisdom there, and something warm and approving that reverberated too in her slight nod. He wanted to let her know somehow that he didn't deserve it, but her attention had already returned to Starsky and she was all business.

"Are you ready to work, Detective Starsky?"

Hutch saw his partner's grip strengthen around the bars, his shoulders rise; the curly head came down like an imminently charging bull.

"Yeah, okay," Starsky said, drawing in a hard breath. "Let's celebrate."