This story first appeared in the zine, Compadres #17 (2000). 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.
For Better or For Worse
K Hanna Korossy
The spoon bouncing off the wall right next to his head was what finally did it. There was patience and then there was martyrdom, and Hutch had crossed the line. He narrowed his eyes in annoyance.
"Don't tell me, soup's too cold," he said evenly.
The spoon hadn't been aimed at him, of course, but Starsky didn't look the least bit apologetic. In fact, unsurprisingly, he was obviously hurting. Sending the utensil flying had pulled at the still newly healing bullet wound in his shoulder. The sight of his partner with his good hand curled around the sling and body hunched over in painful reminder would have melted Hutch's anger just a few days before.
"How'm I supposed to eat with my right hand?" Starsky gritted, unchastened. "Y'know I can't do it without gettin' soup all over the place."
"Fine. I'll fix you up something solid," Hutch said.
"Don't bother. I ain't hungry." And with that, Starsky gave him a defiant look and plopped the tray hard one-handed onto the nightstand, sending the contents sloshing generously over the side. Yet another mess Hutch would have to clean up.
Any thoughts he might have had about arguing with his partner over the recovering invalid's need to eat and regain his dropped weight, vanished. "Fine," Hutch repeated tartly, then turned on his heel and walked out of the room, pulling the door hard shut behind him. If Starsky wanted to starve himself to death, why should Hutch care?
Except, he did.
Hutch leaned against the hallway wall outside the bedroom, and took a deep breath, drawing a hand over his face.
It had been such a long ten days. But not too long to remember how he'd felt in the hospital, waiting to see if his partner would make it. Thirty-six hours that had felt like a year. No, scratch that. Not like a year because it was not so much a long time as it was that time hadn't been passing at all, like life had stopped without Starsky around to keep it moving. Or like, without Starsky, life had lost the interest to go on. Hutch would have promised anything to get his partner safely back then, but didn't because that wasn't how God worked. Someone like Starsky was a gift, never to be earned because Hutch knew he couldn't have been that good.
And then there were times like this when he wondered what he'd done to make that same generous God angry at him.
A moan came from the bedroom even through the closed door, probably as Starsky got himself horizontal, to his shoulder's displeasure. Hutch's not-quite-extinguished conscience twinged, but he mashed it down without pity. Going in now to try to help his hurting and short-tempered partner would be nothing less than suicide, and Hutch had no inclinations toward masochism. Instead, he pushed away from the wall and returned to the kitchen to clean up the remainders of lunch.
The cupboards were pretty depleted, between Starsky's long absence from home and then Hutch's preoccupation with nursemaiding. Bread, noodles, milk--Hutch absently pulled together a list as he put the soup fixings away. Maybe donuts would cheer him up, or at least put a little of the lost weight back on...
So much for abandoning his ingrate partner, Hutch thought with a quirk of the mouth. Looked like they were stuck with each other.
His hands, paused in mid-wrapping at the fervent thought, began to move again more slowly, shaking just a bit as they were still wont to do without warning since That Night. The memories were still way too close for Hutch to forget how desperate he was to hear his partner say anything, even a complaint, just to hear him talk and know that he'd be okay. Yet here Hutch was now, complaining about the very thing he would have begged for earlier. He shook his head wearily.
The soup and its ingredients were wrapped up and Hutch stuck everything absently in the refrigerator, pulling out all the sandwich stuff he could find instead. No cold cuts that were still good, but there was the old standby and Starsky's favorite, peanut butter and jelly. Hutch carefully laid out two pieces of bread.
The little things were often what meant the most. Once his partner was out of the woods, looking after him in the hospital had almost been a gift, even when the tasks themselves weren't always pleasant. Starsky had been weak as a baby at first, requiring almost complete care, but just the chance to help in all the little ways was one Hutch badly needed. Almost more than Starsky needed his help. His partner was that important to his own balance, and contributing in any way he could to getting Starsky back, helped Hutch.
The peanut butter went on in a glossy layer, carefully smoothed to the very edges of the bread, followed by an equally even layer of grape jelly. Not very original, Hutch thought with a small smile, but that was what Starsky liked so that was what he got. Hutch had served juice earlier with the soup, but you had to have milk with peanut butter and jelly, Starsky had once informed him with dead seriousness, and so Hutch poured a glass of the stuff too. Then, squaring his shoulders, he picked up the sandwich and milk and headed back into the bedroom.
There hadn't been a sound from the room and as Hutch softly opened the door, he wondered if Starsky had dozed off again as he often still did. He couldn't tell from the motionless figure that was curled away from him.
"Starsk?" he ventured.
A moment of silence. Then, gruffly, "Thought you'd left."
Hutch winced, recognizing the worry at being left alone for what it was. The usual answers, the flip Can't get rid of me that easy, and the irritable You would've deserved it, just wouldn't come. Nor did he have any intention of asking Starsky if he wanted to be left alone because, like it or not, he still needed the blond's help. Hutch shrugged at his partner's back. "I thought about it," was all he said.
Another hesitation, then Starsky gingerly rolled onto his back just enough to meet Hutch's gaze. "You shoulda belted me." He was still grumbling, but there was genuine apology in his eyes.
Hutch shook his head once, not holding back his smile now. "My mother taught me never to kick someone when they're down." He held out the food as a peace offering. "Fixed you a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I figured you could handle that with either hand."
That sparked Starsky's interest despite himself. He propped himself up on one elbow. "Grape jelly?"
Hutch nodded. "Grape jelly."
It had been ten days since the shooting, and still Starsky forgot. He began to sit up far too enthusiastically, only to sag with a deep groan as his weight pulled at the injured shoulder.
Hutch had seen it coming but too late to intervene. Alarmed, he dropped the plate and glass onto the dresser, heedless of the clatter, and was by the bed in two strides.
"Let me see, Starsky," he said gently but firmly, prying away his partner's clenched hand from the bandaged shoulder. The stitches had been removed already but the injury was still tender and could reopen with too much strain. A careful examination revealed no bleeding, though, just the ugly red scar Hutch still wasn't used to.
Satisfied, he settled the sling back into place and eased his partner back against the headboard. Hutch curled a hand around the back of his partner's neck, rubbing muscles that had tightened against the pain and waiting for Starsky's gasping breaths to calm and his squeezed-shut eyes to open.
"Shoulder looks good, buddy, just wasn't ready for you to pull on it like that. Take a few deep breaths...that's it...try to relax..." The pinched look eased as he talked, Starsky's breathing evening. "That's good. It's gonna be okay in a minute."
Finally, tired blue eyes blinked open at him, giving him a sloppy smile. "Gene Autry...always made it look easy," Starsky breathed.
"Yeah, well, spending two weeks in bed biting your partner's head off doesn't look too good on the screen, Starsky," Hutch said, carrying his massage over to the brunet's good shoulder.
Starsky's eyes closed again, this time in pleasure. "Mmm. Gene Autry didn' have a partner. You're thinkin' the Lone Ranger."
"The Lone Ranger had a partner?" Hutch's eyebrows rose. "Why was he the 'Lone' Ranger then?"
"'Cause he was the only ranger who survived the ambush," Starsky explained with aggravated patience. "Tonto was the one who found him and fixed him up an' they became partners." He opened one eye to stare suspiciously at the blond. "Didn' you ever watch the Lone Ranger when you were a kid?"
"Nope. We weren't allowed to watch TV or go to the movies except on special occasions." His hand traveled back up to Starsky's neck, then, ever so gently, to the muscles around the injury.
Starsky winced, then sighed with relief. "Depraved childhood," he murmured.
Hutch chuckled. "Deprived," he corrected.
"Whatever." Starsky was half-asleep, head hanging forward to allow Hutch access to his neck and shoulders. Trust, Hutch mused as he rubbed. It was always there between them but most obvious at times like this, with one of them truly dependent on the other. Hutch had never lost his own trust in Starsky even when he'd been in the throes of heroin withdrawal and had barely recognized the brunet. And now, as Starsky had begun to recover, becoming more aware but still immobile and helpless, his trust in Hutch had let the blond help him as he needed.
As we both needed. Need to get his partner back had segued into the need to help, an ingrained oldest-child reflex. It made Hutch feel useful, like he was doing his share. Their partnership wasn't about debt or duty, at least not since the Academy, but Starsky had given him so much, Hutch was glad for the chance to return the favor and to show his thankfulness for Starsky's safe return. Besides, that was what partnership, and friendship, was all about. How could he do any less for someone who always seemed to be watching him with such grateful affection? Well, when Starsky wasn't complaining, anyway.
Starsky began to snore, chin against his chest, and Hutch cringed. The position didn't look comfortable at all, and sleeping like that would be sure to make his sore shoulder hurt even worse. He left his right hand where it was, against the curve of Starsky's neck, but with his left hand gave the stubbled face a light pat. "Hey, Starsk?"
"Go 'way," Starsky growled, not much aware.
Hutch tapped his cheek again. "Not 'til you wake up."
Starsky's head came up, eyes open and irritated. "What?!"
Hutch pulled away, swallowing a sigh. Back to Mr. Hyde. "You were gonna put a dent in your back, sleeping like that. Do you want your sandwich now or some help getting flat?"
"Sandwich," Starsky muttered.
Hutch rose, retrieving the sandwich and milk and putting them on the tray in the place of the juice and spilled soup. He took those out to the kitchen, returning to find that Starsky had already dug in and polished off a third of the sandwich. "Good?" he said lightly.
"Terrific," Starsky admitted, watching Hutch sit down across the room as he ate. "Whatcha doin' over there?" he asked with a full mouth, indicating the empty chair that Hutch had dragged close to the bed shortly after Starsky had come home from the hospital. The blond had spent the first two nights in it, until they were both sure Starsky was mending fine.
"Is it safe?" Hutch asked, only half-joking.
Starsky stopped chewing, suddenly looking a little abashed. "Dummy. 'S not you, just--"
"I know," Hutch quickly said, getting up to go flop in the other chair. "I'm just the convenient target."
"Not too many people would put up with bein' a target for a week." Starsky grinned guiltily at him. "I know I'm not makin' it easy on ya, but I'm glad you're here."
That was as close to a thanks as Hutch wanted his partner to come; they'd had enough soapy scenes to last them for a while during the worst of the ordeal. "You about finished with that?" he indicated the sandwich instead, nearly abandoned despite Starsky's initial enthusiasm.
Starsky stared at the food as if he'd just noticed it. "Uh, yeah." Another sheepish grin. "Guess I wasn't as hungry as I thought." A yawn. "I'm kinda beat."
"Yeah, well, you will be for a while still, pal, but believe me, you look a whole lot better already." Thank God, that was the truth. Hutch rose to take the plate away, waiting patiently until Starsky drank half the glass of milk, then set both aside to help the invalid ease himself flat again. A hiss and an almost irate "Watch it!" made him quickly adjust his hold, but otherwise the process was as painless as he could make it, and sleep was soon smoothing out the lines of tension and lingering pain in his partner's face. Starsky's hand, clutched around Hutch's arm during the process, squeezed once in thanks, then grew lax, and Hutch laid it carefully on the bed.
The sandwich bread would soon grow crusty, exposed to the air, but it could wait a minute. Hutch settled himself back down into the chair to watch the sleeper.
When it came down to it, this was what it was about. Not about him and what he needed or wanted, but about this idiot beside him. It was about love, regardless of how he or Starsky acted, because that kind of friendship had its own reasons and fulfillment and source of strength to draw from. And it was completely mutual, regardless of whether one of them was sidelined for the moment.
Forget the sandwich, Hutch thought comfortably, sliding further down into the chair. Some things are more important.
Soon they'd be hitting the street together again, and Hutch could hardly wait. But until then, even with a grumpy partner, this wasn't that bad.
Starsky's mouth twitched into a half-smile in his sleep, and Hutch found himself grinning, too.
No, not too bad at all.
Written in 1999