This story first appeared in the zine, Neon Rainbow Press S&H Special Edition (1998). This zine, and other fine S&H gen zines, can be obtained from Neon Rainbow Press at: http://www.neonrainbowpress.com/ Comments on this story can be sent to: email@example.com and will be forwarded to the author.
Comfort's Cost II: Lessons Learned
K Hanna Korossy
The first thing he noticed as he walked into the room was the heart monitor beeping quietly. Hutch stared at in consternation. His grandfather had only been put on a monitor in the last week of his life, when his condition was tentative and his heart could've easily stopped at any moment. Surely Starsky wasn't in that kind of danger? The doctor had been optimistic, if not positive.
He shut the door quietly behind him to go to see for himself.
The sight solidified the air in his lungs. Hutch had seen his partner only that morning and Starsky had been pale and deeply under then, but he hadn't looked this bad. The bruised eyes were sunken into a face bleached of any color except for reddened cheeks. Hutch brushed his fingers gently over the feverish skin, frowning worriedly at the heat he felt. Then he was out of the room and striding down the hallway.
At the nurses' station, he snagged the first woman in white he saw. "Excuse me? I need someone in Detective Starsky's room--he's running a fever."
The woman smiled at him. "I know, Detective. I was just in there a few minutes ago. Officer Starsky has a post-operative fever, but we're keeping an eye on it. He's on antibiotics now. It's probably nothing to worry about."
"Nothing to..." Hutch blanched. "He just had major surgery!" Starsky didn't have the strength to spare.
Her face softened, compassionate. "Infections like this aren't uncommon, Detective. Officer Starsky is still very weak, but the antibiotics should make a difference soon." She touched his arm. "We're doing everything we can. He's in good hands. Please try not to worry so much."
Oh, God, how could he not? She didn't understand just who she was talking about here. He silently shook his head, overwhelmed by helplessness.
"Ken," the nurse said quietly, gently, pulling his arm. "Why don't you go sit with him for a while."
He let himself be guided back into Starsky's room, into the chair beside his bed. The woman said something else to him before she left, but he nodded without understanding a word.
Starsky was so still. Hutch watched him bleakly for a long minute before hesitantly reaching out to touch again. So hot--how much more could a damaged body take? He'd thought all he had to do was get his injured partner out of the hostage situation and to help. He'd been able to do something useful then. Now, it was no longer in his hands, his field. He was utterly helpless.
His caressing fingers felt a stir, and Hutch stood up to lean over the bed. "Starsk?" he said hopefully. "Can you hear me?"
Starsky's eyes twitched, moving behind closed lids until finally opening halfway. Hutch's encouragement at the progress died away as the blue eyes, dulled with fever and drugs, stared at him some seconds without recognition or awareness before sliding shut again. Hutch sighed.
"That's okay, buddy, you need to rest now anyway." He stroked the unruly hair away from the white square of gauze at his partner's temple, but there was no reaction now, and Hutch gave the limp good hand a squeeze, then sat down again. The magazine someone had shoved into his hand to read while he waited, slid to the floor unremarked. Nothing else seemed to matter very much or was worth the time when his partner lay next to him, fighting for his life.
Hutch shivered abruptly and hunched down in the chair, burning with worry on the inside, frozen by fear on the outside, and waited.
He lost count of the nurses' visits, coming every few minutes it seemed to check the patient's temperature, change IVs, check equipment, whatever. He always asked for news and it was always the same: nothing's changed, have to keep waiting. Starsky opened his eyes more than once in response to Hutch's soft voice and touches, but it was always the same brief, blank stare that made the blond feel cold, almost worse than if Starsky were in unreacting unconsciousness. So Hutch continued to sit, stifling a scream at the frustration and agony of being a passive observer in a battle that mattered so much to him. Ironic, that after all the need for hurry in the restaurant, every second counting, it should come down to this. Waiting.
He had one thing now that he hadn't had then, though, and that was the ability to be with his partner. It was quite possible that his thoughts would've driven him mad if he'd been kept away here, too, but sitting next to Starsky, listening to him breathe and talking to him and holding and rubbing the limp hand at least allowed him to feel closer to his friend. And entertain hope that maybe, just maybe, his presence in some way helped Starsky.
Another nurse came in--they'd all blurred together and he'd given up on sorting one from the other--and took another temperature reading, then smiled at him. "It's beginning to go down, Detective. I think he's through the worst of it. Can you tell the difference?"
He stared at her, then at Starsky, realizing for the first time the damp coolness of the hand held tight between his own, the beads of sweat on the face that perhaps wasn't so waxy or red anymore. "He's going to be okay?" It wasn't hope yet exactly, but it was a start.
Her smile grew. "I think so. We'll wait for the fever to break, and then maybe both of you can get some real sleep." She winked at him and left, and he stared after her. Hutch suddenly realized she was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen.
He stood to get a better look at Starsky, and he could indeed see the improvement. The unnatural blush was almost completely gone, as was the restless sleep of fever. Starsky's head shifted to one side, his lips parting in an almost-sigh, and his breaths were deeper. It was finally healthy, healing rest.
Hutch managed a real smile at that. "Good job, partner." One small step--and one giant leap.
He stayed another half hour until the fever was declared completely broken and he'd seen Starsky cleaned up and resting comfortably, deeply asleep. Only then did Hutch finally let himself leave for the night.
His path out of the hospital took him by the room down the hallway with a policeman standing guard in front of it, a room Hutch had either been oblivious to or had coldly ignored until then, but now he found his steps slowing, his gaze curious as he stared at it.
Hutch turned back to the nurses' station. He'd seen its sole occupant before, and he addressed himself to her, inclining his head back toward the guarded room.
"How's Lockly doing?"
She knew him--they all seemed to know him--and didn't hesitate, pulling a chart out to consult. "Just fine. Scheduled to be released tomorrow, into police custody. He had a clean injury, minor damage."
Hutch pressed his lips together tightly and nodded. It wasn't fair. Both shot in the shoulder, and Lockly was going home forty-eight hours later, while Starsky...
"Did I hear you ask about my brother?"
The new voice made Hutch turn, and he stared blankly at the familiar man. Then fought down his instinctive reaction as he realized that the man was familiar because he reminded Hutch of Lockly, the same cast to his face and gray eyes. These weren't cold, though, like the hitman's had been, but instead warm and concerned and even sorrowful.
The man stuck out his hand. "I'm Philip Lockly. Do you know Tom?"
Hutch unfroze, finding that he couldn't hate the man for the kin he had. Wearily, he shook the offered hand. "Detective Ken Hutchinson. I was--"
The man hesitated only for a moment at the name, then interrupted with, "I know," but he didn't draw back. He went on quietly. "It's been in the papers. I'm...sorry about your partner."
It never helped to hear it, but Hutch nodded. "I'm sorry about your brother." Not that Lockly was shot--he'd never feel any remorse for that--but that an apparently decent man like this had a brother the likes of Tom.
Philip Lockly seemed to understand. "We had no idea. It's been hard, but...he's my brother. But thank you for stopping him before anybody else got hurt."
Hutch nodded again. An awkward pause. Then he ventured, "Your family is..."
"My mother and sister are here. Um, they're in there," Philip gestured vaguely to a waiting cubicle behind him, "but--"
But how did you introduce a woman to the man who'd shot her son? "I understand," Hutch said quietly. The memory of Starsky going to visit Mrs. Craig at her son's wake, the son Starsky had shot and killed, drifted into his thoughts. It had been one of the most courageous things he'd ever seen. He'd been so proud of his partner....
Philip was talking again. "...glad I got to meet you and say thank you. I hope the other officer recovers completely."
Oh, God, so do I. Out loud, Hutch only murmured his thanks and farewell, then got out of there as quickly as he could. It was all he could to do keep from finding a restroom to empty his stomach in.
The ring of the doorbell woke him up, and Hutch started, nearly rolling off the sofa again. Still Starsky's place, he tiredly noted. He had no memory of how he got there, no matter how much he tried to think.
Hutch staggered to the door, rubbing at his stubbled chin. When had he last shaved? Or eaten, for that matter? With a mental shrug, he reached for the doorknob.
The phone rang. His blurred mind hesitated, uncertain which to answer first, and finally opted for the phone, only a few steps away. It didn't even occur to him that it wasn't his telephone and the call probably wouldn't be for him. "Hutchinson."
Captain Dobey. Hutch relaxed a little, even as the doorbell rang again and he glanced at it with vague impatience. "Cap'n--"
"Thought I might find you there. Listen, some of the hostages from Giovanni's have been talking to the media. Eney and Gould held the reporters off you yesterday at the hospital but the media figured out where Starsky lives and that you're there, and I think they're probably going over there this morning. The department's already made a statement on the matter, so you don't have to talk to them. Some of the guys are on their way over to handle the crowd; just sit tight and wait for them, okay?"
"Cap'n, they don't have to--"
"Hutchinson," Dobey interrupted sternly, "I didn't order them to do this. It was their idea. Let them handle the sharks, son. You just worry about yourself and your partner."
Hutch smiled softly. "Thanks, Cap'n. I'll wait for 'em."
His boss hesitated. "How's he doing?"
"Better. His fever's gone so he's sleeping now. They don't expect any other complications."
"That's fine." A beat. "Are you coming in today? I can't hold IA off on that report any longer, Hutch, I'm sorry."
Hutch winced. He'd forgotten the report. "Right after I stop by the hospital."
"Right. Call me on the way so we can clear a path for you."
They were at the station, too? Hutch shook his head. What more did they want from him? He'd done his job, now he had his own to look after. But all he said was, "Thanks, Cap'n. See ya later."
The doorbell rang again, twice, and Hutch peered through a window to see the small group crowded on the porch and the stairs, cameras and microphones ready. With another wince he ignored them all, going into the bathroom to shower.
He'd have to go home sooner or later; he was running out of clothes he could find at Starsky's to wear. Hutch finally opted for the jeans he'd worn the day before, together with another of his partner's sweatshirts. Starsky's laundry was getting full, and Hutch made a mental note to take care of that sometime in the next few days before Starsky came home. The kitchen didn't offer much, either, but he settled for some bread that wouldn't be good much longer, spread with jam. Hutch had nearly forgotten food, at least since his meager breakfast the day before. He'd have to go shopping to stock up, maybe indulge a few of his partner's junk food vices. At least until Starsky regained some of the weight he was already losing in that bed...
The dizziness hit so suddenly, he nearly fell against the refrigerator with it before he caught his balance. Whoa, easy there. He'd definitely need to start eating again, maybe go out for a jog as soon as he could do it without company. Start sleeping without waking up in a cold sweat every half hour, and cut back on the stress... His mouth stretched in a humorless smile. Yeah, right.
There was a knock at the door, followed by a familiar, faint, "Hey, Hutch!" With a quick glance around the room, Hutch paused only to rifle through one of Starsky's drawers for a moment, pocketing the book he was looking for, before he went out into the living room and opened the door.
The noise assaulted his senses, a dozen people suddenly talking at once, each trying to be louder than the other, all yelling at him. Unprepared, he nearly reeled under the onslaught, ready to pull back inside and slam the door behind him, but Gould was gently taking him by the arm and shielding him from the worst of it, pulling the blond toward the stairs, with Eney on his other side keeping everyone away from him. He let himself be led, staring blankly at the sea of faces pressing towards him. Hutch couldn't understand what they were saying or even why they were there, and felt faintly puzzled by the odd detachment. But not enough to worry about it much.
They got to the bottom, where Gould leaned closer to ask him if he wanted to take his own car or if they could give him a ride, but he chose to be alone, feeling too claustrophobic even with his friends and fellow cops to go with them. It took a few minutes after he'd gotten in the Torino for the shaking he hadn't even noticed before to stop, but the two detectives waited patiently, keeping the reporters and photographers away from the car until he finally calmed down enough to drive away.
The quiet room, even with its incessant beeping, was a dramatic change from the chaos.
Starsky lay as still as before, in almost the same position Hutch had left him as if he hadn't moved at all since. The awful pallor of the first two days was a little less pronounced, though, and Hutch could almost believe that his partner was merely asleep instead of unconscious and just stabilized. Almost. There were still no promises, no definite assurances they could make him and that he could believe. Hutch sighed heavily, carding his fingers through the thick curls without conscious intent. The uncertainty had gone on for so long, he was nearly used to it, but it lapped away at him, at his strength and lucidity and optimism. Maybe he was more functional on the outside, but inside he felt bruised and tattered by the weight of his worry and confusion.
The door opened and a nurse came in with a shaving kit in hand. She smiled--that seemed to be their standard response to him, Hutch noted wearily, and wondered if it was pity or reassurance.
"I'm sorry, Detective, I didn't know you were here. I can come back and do this later."
"I can do that," he found himself instantly volunteering before he even thought about it.
She hesitated, watching him. "Have you ever shaved another person before? It's not the same as doing your own face, you know." But the words were kind, thoughtful.
"No, I haven't," he said honestly, shaking his head. "But I'll be careful."
Her smile grew. "I know." Without another word, she reached out the kit. "Let me know if you need any help, okay?"
He nodded. "Thanks." Then he set to work, heart unimaginably lighter for the chance to do something.
The nurse had been right in that it wasn't as easy as it seemed, but he worked slowly and carefully, concentrating on following each slide of the blade over the planes of a face even more familiar than his own. Taken for granted, and yet he studied it unconsciously every day, recognizing each twitch of the mouth, catching every raised eyebrow and subtle shift of expression, until he understood the emotions mirrored in it as if he felt them himself. And indeed, he often did. Especially that grin that was private between the two of them...
Hutch did the last bit quickly and wiped off the excess shaving cream. "Finished, Starsk. You can relax now," he teased. He cleaned up, examining his work carefully. At least Starsky didn't look quite so...neglected. "Not bad, if I do say so myself. You'd probably find something wrong with it, but considering it's my first try at this..." First of how many? He swallowed. "Okay, my turn," he said, deliberately light, and went into the bathroom to use the mirror, leaving the door open, talking to his oblivious partner as he worked. He hadn't a clue what he was saying, but neither of them seemed to care.
Once the shaving things were put away, he set the kit on the bedside tray and leaned close to Starsky's ear, no longer able to keep up the superficial levity. "Be back soon, partner. Wait for me," he whispered.
Starsky shifted minutely in sleep, then was still again. Hutch's eyes stung for some reason, and he knuckled them as he patted his partner's good shoulder and reluctantly turned and walked out.
With the passing of time came clearing of mind, whether wanted or not, and it was with greater awareness than the day before that Hutch walked into Parker. The small knot of reporters at the door had thrown him once more, but they had been no match for the officers who had come out to nearly surround Hutch as he walked inside.
Officers--brothers in blue. He'd felt the helplessness before when one of their own was attacked or hurt, but he'd never felt it from this angle before, both participant and observer. Anger, worry, restlessness, vulnerability had all penetrated and suffused the halls of the station and the glances he got as he made his way to the squadroom. And the well-wishes and inquiries both warmed him and hurt, each a reminder. Hutch doubted he'd ever get used to that part.
A brief check-in with Dobey--his boss was still being unusually kind, which Hutch appreciated even as it underscored that everything was off--and Hutch sat down at his desk to work. His desk, right across from the empty chair and the cluttered desktop of his absent partner. He deliberately kept his eyes bent low over his work to keep from seeing it, but Starsky's absence was nearly as obvious as his presence. Hutch had gotten so used to his partner always being there, that the empty chair felt like a hole in normalcy. How had his definition of simply being been changed to include not only his own self-awareness, but the presence of that cocky brunet? Being alone now felt like losing a limb. No, something even more vital. His heart.
He was no longer complete by himself.
Hutch worked on, despite the fact that the vacuum by his side was far more loud and disturbing than his partner's prattle and uncontained restlessness had ever been. When the report was finally out of the way, he was already exhausted and ready to leave, particularly to get away from all the sympathetic eyes that watched him from around the room. Any one of his co-workers would've done whatever possible to try to ease his load, he knew that, and they were Starsky's friends, too, and worried about him. Several of them had already come and talked to him in low tones, careful to avoid sitting in Starsky's chair as they did, but even sympathy grated after a while. He didn't want sympathy. He wanted his partner back.
The summons from Dobey was both welcome distraction and annoyance, but he jumped up to answer it, report in hand. Hutch shut the captain's door behind him, then dropped the report on the black man's desk before sinking into a chair.
Dobey eyed him and it, pausing to skim the papers before nodding. "That's all the paperwork on the shooting?"
Hutch nodded tiredly. "That's it. Shooting report, Incident report, IA's summary." And the paperwork on Starsky's injury, but the captain would see that for himself.
Dobey absently nodded as he read. "Good, good." He looked up. "It's a little early, but Fargo called down a little while ago from IA, wanted to know if you were up to having the hearing this morning."
Hutch shrank into himself a little more. Today? It already felt like he'd reached his limit, his mind as utterly foggy and incoherent as if he hadn't slept for days. "I wanted to get back to the hospital..."
Dobey was watching him. "You don't have to say yes. We can't delay it more than a day or two, you know that, but Fargo thought maybe you'd want to have it over with."
Hutch rubbed his eyes with one hand. "Yeah, okay. Now?"
"If you're ready."
Ready. He nearly laughed. He hadn't been ready for any of this, but nobody had asked. "Okay."
"Hutch, you don't have to do this now," Dobey reminded him.
"Yes, I do, Cap'n. I do want to get this over with." And concentrate on Starsky.
Dobey seemed to understand that. "All right, I'll call Fargo." He reached for the phone.
The hearing actually wasn't as bad as Hutch had dreaded. Yet another rehashing of that nightmare, but the events, even his voice, felt distant as he recited step-by-step what happened. Training, he supposed when he dully thought about it, his mind cataloguing automatically, unemotionally what his heart reeled at and couldn't grasp. Nor were the hearing panelists as tough on him as they'd been in past deadly force hearings. It didn't hurt that there had been glowing, supportive statements from all the hostages, or that the media, he was finding out, was portraying him as a hero. Or that his partner had been critically injured and was still unconscious in the hospital.
He was reinstated to active duty, his suspension lifted, and the panel filed out, leaving him staring at the gun that had been returned to him. A simple thing, little skill needed, that he'd used to hurt one man and take another's life, just as they'd tried to do with Starsky. Those tiny bullets--what power they had. It was a weight far beyond the gun's 3 1/2 pounds that he carried on his shoulders. And one just like it had nearly taken from him the one thing he held most precious, the one thing he could never replace.
Unable to bear the doubt and separation any longer, he shoved the gun angrily into its holster and strode out of the station, heedless of the few reporters still waiting, and automatically drove back to the hospital.
Hutch froze at the sight. They were waiting for him in the lobby: Sammy and Robin, the Durants, and Theresa with her battered Jimmy Lee. Burgess stood next to them, watching Hutch for reaction, ready to play buffer as needed, but after a warm look of thanks at his fellow detective, Hutch moved forward to talk to the group of former hostages.
"We just wanted to say thanks and find out how Detective Starsky was doing," Theresa was speaking for all of them. "We can't thank you both enough for what you did." Nods of assent all around followed her words.
The concern touched him even more than that of his fellow officers. For the police, it had been a loss of their own, an injury to them too. For these people, it was a spontaneous gesture of unexpected thanks, and it eased Hutch's loneliness just a little. "Uh, th-thank you," he finally found his voice. "Detective Starsky had surgery on his shoulder and he's resting now. I'd ask you to come up and see him except he hasn't woken up yet since then..." Even the words hurt, making his stomach ache bleakly.
Gentle, sympathetic looks all around, and it occurred to him that most of them hadn't even met Starsky, had seen nothing more of him than a glimpse as they'd wheeled him out on the stretcher. Their concern was for Hutch's loss, and gratitude for a man they didn't even know who'd been injured for their sakes. His eyes watered again for the umpteenth time in the past several days, his emotions long beyond his control.
The group said their good-byes, each privately offering a few words, gifts, flowers and cards. Burgess had to help hold them, there were so many. Hutch sincerely thanked them all, truly glad to hear that Robin and Sammy were back together, that Theresa was simply on probation, that the Durants had decided to set up a police fund in Starsky's name. As they left, Hutch let out a heavy sigh, drained and lightened by the experience. Then Burgess walked him up to Starsky's room, helping him carry everything and then leaving the two of them alone.
The world, already murky and unimportant when he was in it, faded to unimportance in that room. Only here were things clear and sharp and simple. Life or death; it didn't get more basic than that.
The heart monitor was gone. It took a minute to sink in, but there was no beeping anymore, no soft sounds of any machinery. Hutch's breath trembled briefly, then he caught himself and once more stroked the dark hair, the now-shaven hollow cheeks, down to the still hand. "Time to cut the Camille act, Starsk," he said softly. "You've been sleeping long enough, pal, don't you think? I need you back here." Oh, man, was that the truth.
Another stirring, reflexive tightening of the hand in his, and he held his breath, but there was no other response. "Still not talkin' to me, huh? Probably still mad at me for not getting to have your Italian dinner. Tell you what, you get back on your feet and I'll take you out to eat anywhere you want, you can name the place. Just open your eyes for me, partner."
Nothing. Hutch gave a silent sigh, leaning his forehead briefly against the dark curls, remembering the comfort he'd received in that same touch in the restaurant back room.
He slowly sat back down in the chair, twining his fingers through Starsky's. Then he pulled from the pocket of his jacket the little green book he'd retrieved from his partner's place. He'd put off this task long enough.
The Starsky clan was a large one, but most of them were based in New York. He'd hoped to leave Rachel Starsky to her son, but with the media running with the story, the brunet's injuries were sure to be in the news and it wouldn't take long for the news to filter back to Rachel from the branch of her family in L.A., her sister Rosie and her family, Starsky's second parents. Hutch dreaded the call, but he preferred it come from him than from a callous newspaper.
He called Rosie first, the warm woman who'd raised Starsky after his mother had sent him out to the west coast and who still often had him over for meals, sometimes with his partner along. She was the level-headed sort, upset at Hutch's news but practical, grateful for the news but willing to wait until Starsky was better before visiting. She would worry, though, and pray, and Hutch tried to soothe the former and take comfort in the latter. Rosie offered to call her sister, but Hutch told her he thought that should be his job, and she consented.
"Thank you for being with him," she'd said at the end. "And please, Ken, take care of yourself. David would be very upset at you for anything less, you know that."
He sat and thought for a long time after he hung up with Rosie, before he went on to the next call.
It was a bit of a cop-out; he wasn't up to facing Rachel yet. But Starsky's current lady had a right to know, too, and he tried to retrieve her name. Starsky had talked about her--Jenny? Jenna? No, Janna. She probably had already expected him for some date he'd not shown up for. Sure enough, she was in the green book under "Janna"--Starsky seemed to have some aversion to organizing by last names. Maybe because he never got that far with some of the women, Hutch smiled a little. Humor felt strange, but good.
The chicken-scratch writing would've been hard to read except that he knew it like his own. Hutch tried the girl at home, then, realizing it was only midday, at work, where he found her to be hairdressing. She was more upset than Rosie, but he had to wonder at how much of that was shock and how much was real feeling. He wasn't sure, but it didn't seem like Starsky had been talking about her for more than a week or two. She offered to visit but was content to wait for an update from him or a call from Starsky, whichever came first, which confirmed the blond's suspicions as to her level of involvement. Without regrets, he moved on.
Several of their mutual, outside-the-department friends followed, some who had heard and some who hadn't, and all promised to write or visit the following week when, presumably, Starsky was better up for company. Together with the pile from the group in the lobby, the room was already full of plants and chocolates and cards, Hutch grinned, but his partner would eat it up when he was awake.
Which left Rachel. Soberly, Hutch turned back to the "F" page where, with Starsky's usual logic, he'd filed all of his family numbers. At the top, above all the uncles and aunts and cousins and his brother, were simply "Ma" and, right under it, "Hutch." He'd never noticed that before. Hutch chewed his lip a long moment before picking up the telephone and dialing New York.
And got her neighbor, taking care of the house while Rachel was away for a few days, visiting with a sick friend. No, she wasn't sure of the number; Rachel didn't expect to be long and she was an old retiree--what did it matter where she was? Hutch almost smiled. Well, if no one could reach her, she'd probably not hear the news before she got back. Perhaps Starsky would be able to handle her after all. With guilty, profound relief, he said good-bye and hung up.
He was so tired. Hutch bent his head to rest against the edge of the bed, feeling old and useless. Thirty-two-year-olds weren't supposed to bury siblings or best friends, and he'd already done one and now was in danger of doing the other. Why was that?
Almost before he knew what he was doing, he was dialing again.
Hutch swallowed hard at the familiar, comforting voice, and tried to keep the wobble out of his own. "Mom?"
When he hung up, it was with a somewhat lightened spirit. He'd poured out his heart to her, feeling very much like a ten-year-old huddled at his mother's knee again. But she'd known why he'd called and said all the right things, as mothers always did, and in lieu of his usual support, Hutch had found comfort in her words and felt himself a little less alone. He sat and stared unseeingly at the wall, full of too much feeling to feel anything at all.
The hand in his moved, curling slightly around his.
"Starsky?" He was up on his feet in an instant, leaning over the bed. "You awake, pal?"
More stirring and some illegible murmurs.
Hutch's heart was pounding hard enough to make him feel ill, and yet that was so unimportant. "C'mon, Starsk, talk to me, please?" Who was he really begging?
The forehead creased, as if in puzzlement, and the lips moved with difficulty around the mostly silent, wholly croaky, most wonderful word ever spoken. "'utch?"
"I'm right here, Starsk," he said fervently, tightening his grip, nearly knocked off his feet with delight at the weak squeeze back, and then the sleepy gaze was watching him, really seeing him.
"Hutch." Starsky swallowed slowly around what the blond knew was a painfully dry throat, but before he could offer a drink, the brunet ground out, "Wha--?"
"It's a long story, babe," Hutch soothed as he fumbled to pour a little water in a cup and offer a sip with a straw. That seemed the most his exhausted friend could handle. "It's all over, you're safe now, you're gonna be okay. The bad guys are taken care of and all that's left is for you to heal. I'll tell you about it later. Now you just sleep." He smoothed out the lines of confusion with one touch, then went on to stroke a cheek with his thumb. The heavy eyes began to close again.
" 'kay. 'anks." Starsky's voice was so slurred, it was nearly incomprehensible, but Hutch got it. He smiled gently, happily, as the dark eyes slipped shut and, ever so slightly, one corner of Starsky's mouth turned up before he dropped back into deep sleep.
His heart was singing with sheer joy, and then his delicate equilibrium crashed. Hutch's laugh turned into a sob of relief and the despair of the last few days, then another and another until he wasn't sure why he was crying at all, only that he couldn't stop. Hutch curled around his partner's hand, trapping it close to himself, buried his face against his partner's side, and simply let everything else go.
After that, it was like picking up pieces. Simple words still confused him so he avoided people as much as possible, waiting for Starsky to wake up and make sense of it all for him. He updated his mother and Starsky's family as promised, began playing gatekeeper for the stream of visitors and callers, and did his mandatory counseling sessions with Berrimen, the department shrink. In short, he did everything the world expected of him, as much as he had to and nothing more. Everything else went into Starsky. Hutch wasn't capable of doing anything else, even the simple dealings with the outside world leaving him impatient and exhausted.
The night Starsky awakened, Hutch finally went home to the cottage, only to find the refrigerator stocked with staples and some ready-to-heat meals, the house cleaned, his plants watered, and the mail on the table. The work of the guys at the station, he knew immediately. Hutch grabbed some clothes and went over to his partner's place, finding it in similar repair even though he'd already sorted the mail and bought a few foodstuffs himself. Even the laundry he'd been intending to do was neatly washed and folded, his stuff in a separate pile. Hutch shook his head with a laugh, enjoying the feeling of happiness again, touched beyond words at all the support, and remembering once again that they'd not been alone in their ordeal.
Then it was back to the hospital.
Starsky was waking more frequently, disoriented and strengthless still, but better each time and always willingly trusting Hutch's assurances that everything was okay. Dr. Franklin was more than pleased with his progress, predicting the brunet would be ready to go home by the end of the week, if only into Hutch's care. It didn't matter to Hutch that his partner only strung together two or three words at a time; he recognized visiting friends, was already a little impatient to go home, and, most of all, always responded to Hutch instinctively. Everything that was Hutch's best friend was coming back, and the blond felt blessed even through the daily mundane chores of shaving and washing up and, eventually, the therapy they taught him to do with Starsky.
So why did he feel so sluggish and hazy the rest of the time?
Emotional shock, the psychologist said, and that often took much longer to wear off than physical shock. The bond of partnership, Dobey had said, and tied him to his desk because he argued that Hutch was too unfocused to safely go out on the streets even with--Hutch had bristled at the words--a temporary partner. The tunnel vision of love, his mother said, that saw nothing or no one when a loved one was in danger. It would take time for him to get used to the idea that Starsky was safe and okay; he knew it in his heart, and yet its tentativeness still frightened him. Hutch listened to it all, understood the words, but like with everything else outside, made no sense of it.
Starsky didn't say a thing. His first night home he'd simply listened as Hutch talked, one hand gently weaving through his partner's hair as he heard with his heart what Hutch hadn't been able to put into tangible words for anyone else, and then promised everything would be okay.
And, after that night, just like that, it was.
Three months later, Starsky was dying of Vic Bellamy's poison. It left him unable at the last to say anything, merely lay and gaze at his partner, only his eyes left to convey what his ravaged body couldn't. And Hutch had understood every bit of it. That night, as he searched for and finally found the antidote, and then waited as Starsky's condition declined and doctors shook their heads, he felt himself slipping into that unreality again, the impossibility of losing Starsky, the utter lack of sense a world without his partner made.
And then he remembered.
As Starsky seemed to drift even farther away, losing to the fever and his failing system, Hutch had held on and fought with every cell of his being, drawing on the knowledge of loved ones' support and faith in a God who granted miracles and, most of all, the love between them that survived anything. Starsky trusted him that he would do all he could and let go of what he couldn't, and Hutch could do nothing less. And when Starsky's fever finally broke and he woke up long enough to see his partner at his side, there was no surprise in his eyes, either.
The cost of comfort was high--all he had. But Hutch knew for certain then that it was the bargain of a lifetime.
Written in 1998