This story first appeared in the zine, Ouch! #11 (2001). Fan Q Winner. This zine, and other fine S&H gen zines, can be obtained from Neon Rainbow Press: http://www.neonrainbowpress.com/< /font>. Comments on this story can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org and will be forwarded to the author.
Home Is Where the Heart
K Hanna Korossy
The only trouble with long trips was that they gave you too much time to think. Even by plane, Starsky reflected moodily, going halfway across the country still took too long, too many empty hours for thinking. And worrying. Except that most of the worry reflected on the faces around him was fear of travel, of planes, of the process of getting somewhere.
For Starsky, it was what he'd find when he'd get there.
He shifted in his seat, trying not to wince as the movement produced the slightest twinge in his chest. He actually felt pretty good those days, almost like before, but after hours of sitting still, the muscles had stiffened and cramped. If Hutch would have been here, he'd...
Starsky stopped that thought before it went too far. After a month, such automatic reactions hadn't lessened at all, no matter how much he'd hoped and tried. In fact, each time it seemed harder and harder to drag himself away from that contemplation. Too many ties to be broken that easily, and most of them ties of love and blood, the toughest ones of all.
The plane began to circle above LA, and Starsky watched closely as the city began to sift through the smog. It didn't look any different to him--there was no reason it should--but it felt different. The bond that existed between it and him, the sense of home, was uncertain even as his eyes found familiar landmarks. He'd long suspected his connection to the place came mostly from the people, the person, he loved there. Only, now Starsky didn't know if he had anyone to come back home to.
The plane docked and Starsky pushed ahead to be one of the first off. His only luggage was a hastily-packed duffel bag slung over one shoulder--he'd taken little when he'd left and needed even less coming back now. Both times, ironically, because of Hutch. The first time to avoid meeting him and having an argument Starsky wasn't sure he'd win. And now, in his hurry to return before...
Way ahead, in the crowd waiting for the plane to arrive, Starsky glimpsed a familiar face, and he almost tripped over the people in his way, trying to get through the crowd.
"Starsky! My man!" The black face broke into a wide grin at seeing him, and Starsky couldn't help but grin back as he reached his friend and quickly embraced him.
As he pulled away, Starsky's smile faded and he clamped down on the thin brown arm harder than he'd intended. Squeezing kept his hands from shaking too hard. "Hug, how..."
"The same." The other man's smile had also disappeared.
Starsky nodded, not sure whether to be relieved or disappointed. Maybe both, grateful that he wasn't too late and sorry that he wasn't early enough.
The two of them made their way through the airport silently, too immersed in thought to bother with small talk. They got to the Caddy and, after a brief discussion that consisted of Starsky directing and Huggy not arguing, set off for the hospital. Then, quietly, Starsky asked.
Huggy sighed. The question was no easier to answer for its predictability. "It happened yesterday afternoon. Hutch and McCann..." Huggy winced and glanced sideways, just barely catching the tightening of Starsky's jaw as he stared straight ahead. Huggy looked back at the road again. "...were chasin' a dude who was supposed t'have robbed a liquor store. Followed him up to the roof. McCann says he was at one end o' the roof when he heard the guy jump Hutch at the other. By the time he got there, Hutch had already fallen, two stories down. McCann caught the guy and called the for help, but..." He risked another glance at his passenger, not surprised to see the eyes tightly shut.
"What does the doctor say?" The voice was hoarse.
Nothing Huggy hadn't told him the night before, but the barkeep didn't say that. "Usual medical stuff. Busted ribs and leg, no serious internal injuries, bad concussion..."
"...With swelling of the brain and coma," Starsky softly finished. He opened his eyes and turned to Huggy. "That's it? What about the prognosis?"
Huggy avoided looking at him now. "Doc said that if the swelling doesn't go down soon, they'll have to operate, but there would probably still be brain damage or death. And even if the swelling does go down, there's no guarantee he'll ever wake up again." He hadn't wanted to tell Starsky that over the phone, not when his friend already sounded like he might shatter. But it didn't make saying it now any easier.
"Oh, God..." One hand came up to cover the face, and his passenger withdrew into himself, shrinking against the door.
Huggy hesitantly reached a hand out to rest it on a shoulder, not surprised to find it shaking slightly. But it didn't seem as if the other was aware of him. Only one source of comfort could have broken through that misery, and Huggy wasn't it. Sighing heavily and aching inside himself, he pulled his hand back and concentrated on driving.
By the time they got to the hospital, Starsky had recovered himself a little and his face was almost composed as he pulled his bag over his shoulder and got out, turning to see that Huggy wasn't moving to follow him. "You're not comin'?" he asked, surprised.
"Naw, I'll stop in later. Tell him I said hi." Huggy smiled with effort.
Another humorless smile. "Yeah. Oh, Hug, I..."
"I'll dig you up a car and bring it around. And your place is still there when you wanna go home."
For the second time, surprised eyes met Huggy's.
"Hutch kept it up. Said you'd come back," Huggy answered softly.
The blue eyes filled, looking at him for a long moment before Starsky stood back and shut the door.
"You're welcome," Huggy whispered in answer as he drove away.
The first sight that met Starsky's eyes as he hurried down the hall they had directed him to, was of Captain Dobey sitting on a chair in the hallway, deep in thought, a sandwich dangling forgotten in one hand. The picture would have been almost comic except for Starsky's sudden recollection of Edith Dobey's whispered confidence to him a few weeks after Gunther's attack, that her husband had lost twelve pounds during the ordeal. He had thought it funny then, but Hutch hadn't. Starsky could see why now.
He stopped a few feet away from Dobey. "Cap'n," he said uncertainly.
The tired eyes snapped up to meet his, then the captain dazedly pushed himself up. "Starsky!"
Obviously, neither Minnie nor Huggy had told Dobey he was coming. Well, that didn't matter, he was here now. But he still wasn't sure of his former boss' reaction.
Old hurts seemed to be temporarily forgotten. Dobey's face broke into a grin and he reached out for a hand that Starsky was all-too-willing to give. Then, abruptly, he found himself pulled into an awkward embrace. "It's good to see you, son," the older man rumbled. Starsky shut his eyes for a moment, emotions almost overwhelming him yet again. How many people had he hurt with his departure?
Dobey released him with a little embarrassment, but Starsky smiled at him to show his appreciation. The captain sobered. "Do you know?"
Starsky nodded. "Huggy told me."
Dobey motioned toward a room. "He's in there. You need anything?" he added as Starsky turned to stare at the door.
Starsky shook his head mutely, not breaking his gaze.
"I'm going to go home for a while, then, before Edith wonders what happened to me. I'll talk to you later," Dobey patted him on the shoulder as he set off down the hall. Changing of the guard. Starsky half-waved to him with one hand, eyes still fixed on the door.
Then he took a deep breath and, pushing it open, went in.
It was a typical ICU room, with a large observation window in one of the side walls, a lot of equipment, and soft machine noises. And a solitary figure on a bed in their midst.
Starsky lowered the duffel bag to the floor just inside the door and slowly moved forward, taking in all the sounds and smells and sights except for one. Only when he got to the side of the bed did he let his gaze slowly track up the still arm to the head.
The closed eyes, the peaceful face, and the halo of golden silky hair gave an illusion of sleep, and Starsky would almost have believed it if not for the tube that propped open the lax mouth, forcing continued life in and out in measured, mechanical breaths. He couldn't even breathe by himself.
Starsky blindly felt about and drew up a chair to the side of the bed, sinking into it shakily. He began to reach out, nervously caught himself, then reached out again, hesitantly touching still fingers before gently encircling them with his own.
"Hutch..." was all he could whisper before he rested his head on his arms and his control broke.
It had taken a combination of a doctor, two nurses, and Huggy to convince Starsky to finally go home for a few hours of sleep. Even so, he only went once he'd received the doctor's promise that he could come back first thing in the morning and stay for as long as he wanted. Since Hutch was stable, it was decided that Starsky's presence could only do the patient good as long as he stayed out of the staff's way, and Starsky and Huggy were quick to agree.
Starsky had to swallow hard when he saw the vehicle Huggy had "dug up" for him--the latest battered LTD that Hutch had traded his Belle in for after Starsky declared he wouldn't be caught dead riding in the convertible. It had been an unfortunate choice of words that he had regretted as soon as he saw his partner wince at it. The next day, however, Belle was gone, replaced by another Hutchinson original. Hutch had made light of the whole thing, saying that as his partner wasn't cleared for driving yet, he would rather trade in his car than drive Starsky's tomato. But Starsky had been mortified at his own tactlessness, particularly after Hutch had already given up so much to take care of his injured partner. That was, until Hutch had asked him what he thought of the newest car and gave him such a look of undisguised love and childlike hopefulness that Starsky could answer with his whole heart that it was wonderful. They never mentioned it again.
Starsky drove the squash back home to his place, enjoying the bittersweet memories of its owner that the piece of junk evoked. After the Torino, left behind in his haste to come to LA, there was no car Starsky would've preferred more.
At his apartment, he unlocked the door and opened it slowly. And had to force back overflowing emotions once more. The apartment had obviously been recently cleaned, the disorder of a quick departure carefully tidied, the refrigerator stocked with appropriate Starsky inedibles. It overwhelmed him even more than the visit to the hospital had. Oh, Hutch, were you so sure I'd come back?
He went straight to bed, not wanting to think any more for a while.
The next morning, Starsky was back at the hospital before the day shift was. To his delight, he found that Hutch had been taken off the respirator and the critical list, and moved into a private room, but the doctor cautioned that there was still a long way to go. Starsky was prepared to wait. Just as Hutch had waited for him.
And so he'd ended up in the chair beside the bed again. Feeling steadier than the previous day, for a long time he just sat and examined the fine-featured face. It hit him abruptly that the mustache was gone, and he was surprised he hadn't noticed it before. Perhaps because it looked so...right. Starsky wondered absently what had made Hutch shave it off. Without it, the face looked younger, reminding Starsky of their brash youth when they had thought they could change the world, before they settled for just bettering their small corner of it.
With or without the mustache, he knew each expression, each line and detail of that face by heart, but he found himself studying it hungrily, trying to read every emotion that had played across it in the past month when Starsky wasn't there to see it, every smile, every grief. It seemed somehow to him that even in the peacefulness of sleep, he still saw the grief, as if it had been imprinted on the blond's face of late. Starsky didn't have to look far to figure out why. He swallowed, then took the still hand in his own again and began to talk.
"Hutch? I'm here now, you know. You can quit the sleeping act. They're lettin' me stay with you for as long as I want, and since I got some time on my hands..." He paused. "Anyway, I'm just gonna talk and you can tell me to shut up if you get sick of hearing it, okay?" Starsky seriously studied the face on the pillow in front of him. There was no sign of response, but the doctor had said that it was perhaps possible that Hutch could hear him, and Starsky had latched onto that hope. Hutch would hear him, one way or another.
"You know what I was thinkin' about on the way over here, partner?" The name slipped out accidentally, and after a surprised hesitation, he let it be. Some things were unchanging. "I was thinkin' about the time Vic Bellamy shot me up with that poison. I could feel it, and for the first time, I knew I was gonna die. But you were so sure we we'd find the answer, you never gave up. So I believed you. I had to, you'd never lied to me before. And you were right." Starsky leaned forward in the chair he was sitting in. "Well, you know what? I'm sure you're gonna pull out of this one, I can feel it. What do ya think of that? Don't forget, I'm still battin' .1000 with this ESP thing."
He leaned back in his chair, a smile now playing on his lips. "You remember that fortuneteller we ran into when we were tryin' to track down Belle Cates and her band of kidnappers? Madame Yram? Did I ever tell you she called me a couple of days later? Don't think I did, I was sort of embarrassed about it. But she sounded lonely and I felt kinda bad for her and so I took her out one night. You were goin' with that Julie somethin'-or-other, so I didn't have have anything else to do. We actually had a pretty good time. We went out to eat, and then we were gonna go to a movie, except she started getting these vibes from the guy that was sittin' next to us. Next thing I know, she was goin' home with him. Called me up a few months later to tell me she was getting married." Starsky laughed. "Who would have guessed? 'Think she has a kid by now..."
He trailed off at that thought. When he finally continued, his voice was softer. "Y'know, I never talked about havin' kids with anyone since Helen. Terry and I never did--we thought we had all the time in the world for that, and then when we didn't... well, wasn't any point talkin' about it then. I'm sorry now we didn't. You always mean to do stuff, figure there'll be tomorrow to do it in, and suddenly all the time's gone and you haven't even started... you know?" He peered intently at the gold-framed face, then sighed. "But it wasn't like that with you. We always knew it could be over in a minute, and we didn't waste any of it. Never left anything unsaid either, not the stuff that counted."
Starsky reached up to brush with awkward gentleness at the unruly cornsilk hair. "That kept me goin' a lot of times. Remember when Simon's weirdo cult grabbed me? I was scared, Hutch, more scared than I had ever been before. They weren't just workin' me over, they were messing with my head. But what they couldn't take away from me was that I knew you were out there lookin' for me, and that even if you didn't come in time, I still knew you'd tried your hardest. I don't think I'd have made it without that. Guess that made the difference a couple of times for you, too, huh? Like when you were trapped under your car--you hung in there 'til I found ya."
He paused, searching the calm face, then smiled a little sadly as he relaxed back into the chair, still keeping a firm grasp of the other's hand. "You know, I had to go to five different used car dealers before I found that old heap to replace the wrecked squash? Most of the dealers just looked at me like I was crazy, 'til one of 'em remembered an old junker they had ready for the scrapyard. Couldn't explain to them what you saw in the squash, but then, I never really figured that one out myself. And, y'know, I never told ya, but lookin' for that car for you kind of helped me, too, gave me somethin' to think about, 'cause you weren't the only one having nightmares after that..."
Starsky trailed off pensively. He'd never thought about it that way before, but worrying about his partner had always come before his own fears and had often been the only distraction he'd had. Then again, maybe it wasn't so odd that helping his partner had always helped him--hadn't their relationship always been mutual in every respect?
Now was no exception. He leaned forward again, suddenly intent. "Minnie was the one who called me about you. She was the only one I told where I was and I made her promise not to tell, 'cause I knew you'd come after me, and Dobey and Huggy would help you any way they could. Minnie didn't like it, but she promised. Only, I never thought it would come to this, Hutch, I swear. When she called and said you'd gotten hurt..." That was dangerous ground. "But I'm here now, Hutch. I'm through running, and we're gonna work this out, I promise. Except, you gotta wake up, partner, please."
There was a knock on the door and Starsky shut his eyes for a moment to compose himself. He opened them again to find the doctor coming in.
"Mr. Starsky, may I have a word with you?"
"Sure." Starsky pulled himself out of the chair to face the doctor.
"I was just looking at the x-rays we took of Detective Hutchinson earlier today, and they look very promising." He indicated the envelope in his hand.
Starsky's eyes lit up. "Yeah? Is he gonna come out of this soon, then?"
The doctor's voice was cautious. "Well, the swelling has gone down, so it doesn't look like we'll need to operate, and it went down quickly enough that we can hope there was no serious damage to the brain. But the brain is a tricky thing, as are comas. These results certainly are a positive step, but it could still be days or even weeks before Det. Hutchinson wakes up."
"Or maybe never?" Starsky asked quietly, fearfully.
The doctor looked at him sympathetically. "That is always a possibility; the longer he stays comatose, the less likely an eventual full recovery is. I'm afraid it's just out of our hands, now." With a brief touch of Starsky's arm to make sure the other had understood and was okay, he left the room. Starsky slowly moved back to the chair and sat down again.
"You hear that, Hutch? Doc's done all he can, says it's not in his hands now. That only leaves two of you. I'll talk to the Man Upstairs about doing His part, but you've gotta try, too." His voice was fierce, then softened as he regarded the pale face. "Please, partner, don't you give up on me now." With a deep sigh, he leaned forward against the bed and prayed.
Starsky was looking out the window, grinning. "She kept wanting me to dip, but only if I told her it was wicked. Hutch, you wouldn't believe some of these women, they had some kinky ideas..."
The door behind him opened and Starsky turned quickly from the window, smile vanishing, then hesitantly reappearing as he saw Dobey peering in. "C'mon in, Cap'n."
"Starsky." The captain entered the room, dropping a brown paper bag onto the bedside table as he looked at the patient. "How is he?"
"Well, he's listed as 'fair' now and breathing on his own; Doc says he's doin' better." Starsky leaned back against the windowsill to quietly regard the older man. He owed Dobey some explanations, too, not wanting to imagine what his boss' reaction was to the abrupt and immediate letter of resignation Starsky had left on his desk in the middle of the night he'd left LA. By the time Dobey found it, Starsky had been long gone. Hutch wasn't the only one Starsky had walked out on with no explanation, or that he didn't know where he stood with now.
Dobey, either unaware of or ignoring the scrutiny, looked at Hutch for a long moment more before glancing up. "He knew you'd come back, you know."
Starsky cringed a little; that wasn't what he expected or wanted to hear. "Yeah," he acknowledged finally, softly, studying the floor.
Dobey was still thoughtfully eyeing him. "In fact, he was so sure, he talked me into temporarily misplacing your letter of resignation and putting you on an unpaid leave of absence instead."
"What?!" Starsky looked up sharply; that was news to him.
"You're still officially with the department if you want to come back."
Starsky stared speechlessly at Dobey. There was no condemnation in the other's face, though, only sincerity and a badly-hidden compassion.
How many second chances could one person get?
Starsky swallowed. "I, uh, I don't know," he stammered, then paused. "Thanks, Cap'n, but I don't know yet. Have to talk to Hutch about it."
Dobey nodded at once, accepting the perhaps impossible condition as if he'd almost expected it. Which, Starsky reflected wryly, maybe he had. It seemed as if all his friends knew him better than he did himself, lately.
Starsky suddenly remembered an earlier thought. "Cap'n, did someone call Hutch's folks?"
Dobey nodded again, glancing again at the bed as he slowly skirted it. "I talked to his sister and she said the Hutchinsons were traveling and couldn't be reached at the moment. She'll call as soon as she can get through to them. In the meantime, she wanted to come, but..."
"But she's got her own kids to think about and the new one on the way," Starsky finished. "Yeah, I know."
Dobey leaned against the back of the chair beside the bed. "Most of the SIU has already been by--Gabe, Simmons, Babcock... And Minnie and Meredith were here at the beginning, too."
Starsky looked up in surprise at the past tense; he'd briefly wondered earlier if the two women officers would be by. It suddenly dawned on him now that, with their usual perception, neither wanted to intrude. He was touched by their thoughtfulness. Sometimes a man has better friends than he deserves...
"Thanks, Cap'n," he said earnestly. Then, a little more warily. "Uh, what about McCann?"
Dobey suddenly went back into Captain Mode, bristling at possible questioning of his judgment. "McCann is a good cop and he did a good job. It wasn't his fault Hutch got hurt--his fast action probably saved your partner's life." Dobey narrowed his eyes at Starsky. "He even stayed here most of that first day." The pain in Starsky's eyes made him relent a little. "But it was always understood that they were just temporary partners. McCann's already undercover on a new assignment with his new partner." Is that what you wanted to hear? his expression clearly asked.
Starsky was too deep in thought to notice, but a little of the hurt faded at still-alive hope. Primarily that Hutch would be all right, no question, but beyond that he and Hutch would have to work out for themselves. If they got the chance.
Dobey pushed away from the chair, distracting Starsky from his thoughts. "I've got to be going to the office. I'll stop by later." He pointed to the bag on the table. "Edith sent you some sandwiches and homemade cookies," he added gruffly.
Starsky just smiled. He was still a little haunted from their talk, but he'd had to hear the truth. With a silent answering grin, the captain went out the door.
Starsky stood by the windowsill for a while, staring thoughtfully at the door, then slowly went back over to sit on the edge of the bed again. There was a lot to think about. He'd come back to LA wondering if there was anything left to come back to, only to discover that everything was waiting for him: the house, the job if he wanted it...his old life. All without his asking, before he'd even realized the need in himself. As always. He stroked a pale cheek hesitantly, badly wanting to convey the intense gratitude and love that filled his heart to capacity. "Thanks, partner," he whispered.
He'd gotten everything back that meant home to him, except for one. The most important one of all. Starsky sighed softly, then, after another minute, quietly began to talk again.
The nurse coming into the room in the morning woke him up. Starsky started for a moment, abruptly realizing that he had fallen asleep in the chair next to the hospital bed. Probably in mid-sentence, too, he thought ruefully.
He watched the nurse as she checked the readings and gave a nod of satisfaction, before he realized that she had a shaving kit in her hand and was about to use it. Starsky sat up.
"Uh, I can do that for him."
The nurse looked up at him in surprise, then appraisal, before nodding her head. "Okay, Mr. Starsky. Just let me know when you're done," she said kindly before handing him the implements and leaving the room.
Starsky looked after her for a moment, startled that she had known his name, but then he was getting to be a fixture around there. The doctor had probably already warned his staff about the determined babysitter in Room 311.
Starsky cranked up the bed a little and, sitting down near the raised end, began to lather his friend's face. It had been strange, once upon a time, shaving a face other than his own, but he'd learned quickly and proficiently in the weeks following Hutch's battle with the plague, before the other was strong enough to tend to himself. It had been different then; the blue eyes had watched him as he'd gingerly first attempted the task, but the complete trust and lack of self-consciousness in them had given him courage, and soon he even enjoyed the job along with all the other daily ministrations that were required. It had been a relief to be able to do something after the long days of complete helplessness, and both he and Hutch had needed the time together to reaffirm and reassure that nothing had been lost, only strengthened.
Even now, Starsky thought as he carefully followed the curve of the jaw with the razor, the contact, the other's closeness, being useful, were all balm for a wound that he'd opened himself with his sudden departure, and that had shown no sign of healing with time. They had always helped each other heal. Just like...
"Hey, Hutch, you remember that surprise birthday party you threw me? The one I didn't expect 'cause I thought you were getting back at me for something? I don't think I ever told you how much that meant to me. I mean, I liked the party and I appreciated you rememberin' my birthday, but you knew I needed that party, didn't you? Things had been pilin' up, with Jackson's death and Ted and all, and I wasn't dealin' with stuff too well. I don't know how you knew--I didn't even know. But you figured it out and fixed it somehow. You always did..."
Finished, the shaving was laid aside and forgotten as Starsky lowered his eyes to the blanket on the bed, idly brushing the edge with a finger. "You even knew this time, didn't you, that something was wrong? Only, I didn't give you a chance to do anything about it. It's just..." He looked up. "I was scared, Hutch. I was scared of not bein' good enough anymore, I was scared of not bein' able to do the job, and I was scared of letting you down. And I didn't want you feeling sorry for me or quittin' because of me. So I ran." Starsky grinned self-consciously. "I know it's dumb--you always said you were the brains of the outfit." The grin disappeared, and the blue eyes levelled seriously at the closed ones inches from his. "I'm sorry, Hutch, I know cuttin' out wasn't fair. Minnie said you never stopped lookin' for me, even talked McCann into helpin' you. I... I'm sorry. Just wake up and tell me 'I told you so', huh? You never did miss a chance to say it." Except maybe with Rosey Malone. And Sharman Crane. And...
Starsky rested his forehead against his friend's. "Oh man, I miss ya, partner."
"...and then, just as the Cabrillo Kid was about to win, Bycroft..." Starsky's story was cut off in mid-tale by the appearance of a smiling brown face in the doorway. "Hey, Hug!" Starsky greeted his friend cheerfully, lowering his foot from the act of squashing an imaginary cockroach. He rounded the chair that he had been standing behind and joined Huggy at the doorway of the room.
"How're my two favorite Caucasian brothers doin'?" Huggy responded in kind, Starsky's cheerfulness catching.
"Are you kiddin'? It's the longest he's ever let me talk without shuttin' me up."
Huggy grinned. "Well, just wait 'til he wakes up and starts tellin' you off."
Starsky's grin faded. What he wouldn't give... "Yeah," he said softly. Then, with reinforced good humor. "Whatcha bring?"
Huggy opened the basket that hung on his arm. "Thought you might be gettin' hungry, doin' all that talkin'. Brought you a Huggy Bear Special, and even whipped you up some of your favorite: chocolate omelet!"
All semblance of buoyancy disappeared and Starsky suddenly felt a little sick.
Concerned, Huggy reached out to hesitantly grasp Starsky's arm. "You okay, Starsky?"
Starsky waved him off feebly before sitting down heavily in the chair. "'M fine, just not very hungry." A nurse came in every once in a while to entice him to go and eat, and Starsky managed to force down enough to keep body and soul together, but anything more than that was just too much of an effort. There was a long silence, then Huggy asked hopefully, "There been any change?"
Starsky sighed. "Doc says he's gettin' stronger, everything's mending. Except there's still no guarantees he's gonna wake up at all." Starsky suddenly pounded a fist on his leg fiercely. "I feel so helpless, Huggy! He doesn't even know I'm here."
"Yeah, he does," the black man quietly countered. "You did, didn't you?"
Starsky's head snapped up at the words. He knew what Huggy was talking about. Long hours spent hovering at the edge of infinite peace, held back only by a agony-wracked body... and the presence of a love he couldn't deny. Even when he couldn't feel the touch, hear the soft, pain-filled voice, he had always felt its presence by his side.
He nodded silently.
Huggy stood for a moment longer uncertainly, then put down his basket and, with a gentle good-bye glance, slipped out the door.
After a few minutes, Starsky rose again and sat on the edge of the bed, picking up and gently rubbing the hand next to him. "That was Huggy. He an' the Cap'n are worried sick about you, too. I called him as soon as I got the news from Minnie, and I think he's been worrying about me ever since," Starsky smiled a little. "He's a good friend. Got us outta more than one scrape before." He continued rubbing up the arm, massaging it as he talked, stimulating blood flow like the nurse had showed him. "I don't know what we would have done without him after we took off with IA breathing down our necks for Vanessa's murder. We've been lucky, Hutch, we got good friends. Not too many people would be willing to risk charges of 'aiding & abetting', let alone in the middle of the night."
Starsky was up to the shoulders now, both hands actively working. After a minute, he added thoughtfully, "You know, I knew you hadn't killed her and I told Dobey I was gonna quit before I'd bring you in, and I meant it. I never wanted to be anything but a cop, but if it came down to it or you, no contest. That's why it wasn't even so hard throwin' my badge away with you after Lionel got killed. Sure, I was glad when you decided that you were ready to go back; I was even hoping you would. But I was ready to leave with you, didn't even have to think about it."
He had worked his way down the other arm now, and the motion slowed as he followed his train of thought to its logical conclusion. "You would rather have left, too, huh, instead of splittin' up? Guess I never really thought about it. I just kept thinkin' that I didn't want to drag you down with me. But maybe that's what you'd have wanted." If he was honest with himself, there were no 'maybes' about it. After nine years, he knew Hutch as well as he knew himself, sometimes better, and he had no doubt what the other would have done if Starsky had given him the chance. Freely and without hesitation. Just as Starsky once had. Why hadn't he seen that before and given Hutch that option? After all their years together, he owed the blond far more than that.
Because of fear. And frustration. They were the only answers he could come up with. The very same things that were driving him now to relive their life and friendship, trying to retrieve what had once been and see if it could still be again. And perhaps in the process, reach some part of Hutch, too, for if Hutch was lost now, Starsky would be, as well.
Burying that fear deep, after a few minutes Starsky resumed his story.
The first rays of sunlight fell flush on his face and slowly woke him up. Starsky looked up groggily, trying to recover his bearings. The white-blond head only a foot away brought it all back again. He sighed. This was quickly getting old; it was the second time he'd fallen asleep in the hospital chair and ended up spending the night. He had gone home the afternoon before for an hour or so to clean up and change, but it was beginning to look as though he'd never get a decent night's sleep in a bed again. And the chair was decidedly not made for sleeping in. With a groan, he sat up and rubbed a few kinks out of his back.
He noticed abruptly that his other hand was intertwined firmly with his partner's nearest one. Starsky glanced with surprise up at the still-disconcertingly motionless face, but there was no change that he could see. He himself must have reached out for the contact sometime during the night. Once upon a time, he would've felt embarrassed by the openly needy gesture, but years of interdependence had worn away any such restraints. Life was too short to be spent in deliberate solitude. He winced at the ironic thought, unconsciously kneading the hand in his.
"Hey, partner," he said softly. "G'mornin'. It's Day Four now--how much longer are you planning on doin' this?" Silence. He paused. "Okay. Maybe you're waitin' on me. Guess I still have some explaining to do, don't I. All right."
Starsky took a deep breath, standing as he did. The doctor had said the previous day that Hutch was physically progressing well and getting stronger, and Starsky could try some physical stimulation if he wanted, to attempt to elicit a response from the silent patient. "Hands on," the physician had called it. They were both thinking along the same lines, Starsky realized with some surprise, used to strict hospital rules and unbending doctors. Sounded good to him. And with some of what Starsky had to say, he thought they could both use some physical support.
He let go of the hand in his and sat gingerly on the bed near the end, then leaned back against the wall before he slowly shifted one of the pillows out from underneath the blond head, placing it on his legs. Satisfied as to both his own and the pillow's position, with infinite gentleness he carefully eased Hutch's head and upper body up to rest against the pillows and his own chest. It was a familiar position, one he'd been both at the giving and receiving end of before, comfortable and reassuringly close. Satisfied that the healing ribs were being adequately supported, Starsky wrapped his arms around the still body, and, feeling like he was truly with his partner for the first in a long time, started to talk softly.
"I didn't want to leave. Didn't even think of it for a long time. All the time I kept working on getting better after... the shooting, all I could think about was being back on the streets, backing you up again. I know you were with me every step of the way, but I wanted to be pullin' my share, you know?" He shifted slightly. Of course Hutch knew. "And when the doctor cleared me, I felt like I was on top of the world. Looked like you were, too," he added fondly. "It felt great for the first few days. But then..." His throat closed off for a minute, and he had to work at it to get the words out. But he owed Hutch. "Then we got into that shootout. I was supposed to cover you and I froze. Dear God, I froze! Could've gotten you killed so easily... Probably would've, too, if it hadn't been for Martins showin' up when he did."
Starsky blinked back the tears of the harsh feelings the memory stirred in him again. Guilt had only been the least of it. The terror had worn off after a while, too. But the fear had never gone away, and it had kept eating away at him until he couldn't stand it anymore. He closed his eyes tightly, voice ragged. "That was the one thing I couldn't face, Hutch, you gettin' killed because of me. Me trying to prove to the world I still had it. Maybe I still do, I don't know, but I don't wanna find out, not at that price. So I ran."
The last was said in a whisper. He wanted so badly to hear his partner say it was all right, that he didn't blame Starsky. But there was no reply. Starsky took comfort where he could; thick, dark curls brushed against light blond strands as he leaned in close, both willing into and taking strength from the other, as they had always done.
A few moments later, he straightened again, ready to bear through to the end. "I know it was dumb. I know you would've come with me, too, if you'd have known I wanted out, or talked me somehow into staying. But I couldn't make you give up everything for me, I didn't want that on my shoulders. So I played chicken and ran. I figured by the time you'd tracked me down, we'd both have found some way to live without each other. Only thing is, it didn't happen."
He was slowly, absently rubbing the arms in his embrace. "I tried. I found this little town, Crystal Lake, and got a job at the sheriff's department." Starsky grinned a little at the memory. "Chasing drunks and truants was a big change from murderers and rapists, but I kinda liked it, you know? Even found a little place I figured I could fix up for myself if I wanted to. Doesn't look much better than the fixer-upper I sunk our money into, but I figured with a little work..." His smile faded. "But I kept wondering what you'd say about things. I wondered if you'd like the house, even missed your ribbin' me about it. The cases weren't the same without you, either, partner. Never realized how much I depended on you to work things out with, throw ideas back at me, get me started thinking. It was always so easy with you. Didn't even enjoy eatin' the junk I do without you there to give me grief about it!" He paused. "Guess I've gotten used to ya," he said softly. After finding unconditional trust and love, it was very hard to do without.
It was ironic that it took leaving behind the most priceless and worthwhile part of his life to learn just how precious it was.
He continued to talk softly, unconsciously rocking them both, comforting himself the most. The doctor came in at one point to check on them, Starsky silently challenging him to say something, but the physician had only nodded thoughtfully and walked out again. Nor did Dobey or Huggy, stopping by for a visit, seem surprised, but soon left the two of them alone, reluctant to intrude on a healing of a different kind that was taking place.
Starsky talked all day and long into the night, stopping only once, briefly, at a nurse's insistence he take a break to eat something. Somewhere along the way he made peace with himself; there was no question now in his mind that he'd made a mistake, and that running out the way he did had only hurt both of them far worse than any situation they would've had to face together. All that was left now was to explain all that to Hutch, and Starsky wasn't about to give up before he got the chance. After all, he was back home now with his partner, and there wasn't anything they couldn't do together.
Waking up to someone in your arms was not an unpleasant thing, even if it wasn't necessarily comfortable. Starsky's arms first tightened their hold on the warm body they held, then loosened as awareness returned. He opened his eyes to contemplate the pale blue ones that were inches from his own, quietly studying him. "Mornin'," Starsky said, smiling. Then his smile abruptly vanished as reality hit. The eyes were open and lucid, watching him with a mixture of affection and confusion, the head tilted back a little to see him clearly. "Hutch!" he exclaimed, then lowered his voice as the blond winced. "Hutch, you're awake! You--How d'you feel''?" he asked anxiously, excitedly. "You okay?"
Slowly, a tremblingly weak hand lifted and tentatively touched his cheek, as if testing its solidity.
"I'm right here, partner," Starsky affirmed in a hushed voice, reaching up to meet the hand with an equally shaky one of his own.
The confusion faded from the azure eyes and they slid shut again, a contented smile touching the corners of his mouth as Hutch slipped into an easy sleep. His hand dropped bonelessly into Starsky's, who caught it and held it tight.
Starsky sat motionless for long minutes, staring into the face that still held a hint of a smile, listening to the rhythmic breathing of sleep, feeling the slight movements that now stirred the other's body. Sensing the healing that was finally taking place, the return of his partner from the distant place he had been. He had returned to Starsky just as Starsky had come back to him. And everything would be all right after all. Starsky carefully held on even tighter, not able to think beyond the gratefulness that overflowed his heart and his eyes.
The doctor came in shortly after to check on them and, after a brief examination, concurred with Starsky that his partner was out of the woods now, in deep, healing sleep. If the physician noticed that Starsky's eyes were much brighter than usual, or realized that it was no longer necessary for him to be as physically close to the other, cradling his friend protectively, soothing him back to sleep with a soft word each time the other stirred, he said nothing about it.
And Starsky wasn't about to leave again.
The next week was a blur. Starsky didn't much leave his friend's side, always there to either hold him or sit with him or just to be there with him. Hutch mostly slept, but woke more often and for increasing periods as the days wore on. Huggy, Dobey, and other friends continued to stop by to check in on and welcome them both back, and after the Hutchinsons were finally reached, Starsky also gave them daily updates on their son. McCann stopped by once, too, and Starsky was surprised at how much he liked the pleasant young man, able to show genuine pleasure at their introduction. Even if the better part of that sentiment came from gratefulness for the other's care for Hutch.
But for the most part, the two were left alone. Hutch, after an initial soft and slurred but heartfelt "welcome home," seemed content to listen quietly and let Starsky talk, lulled by the sound of his friend's voice, mending in body and spirit. His speech and movement, initially slightly affected by the head injury, were also improving daily under the constant care. As for Starsky, he was doing his own healing, enjoying keeping up the steady stream of small talk and happy reminisces, finding joy in the simple pleasure of sharing with his friend. He was content to wait to sort things out until they were both ready.
A week and a half had passed when Starsky came back from a quick trip home to find the doctor in discussion with his partner. He stopped in the door uncertainly until Hutch saw him and immediately waved him in.
"Doc here says I can leave today." The voice was still unnaturally quiet with fatigue, but his face glowed with pleasure.
Starsky grinned. "Hey, that's great. I didn't think they'd let you go so soon."
The doctor turned so that he was facing both of them. "Well, Detective Hutchinson's recovery has been amazing. I think he'll do at least as well now resting in the comfort of his own home. With some help, of course." The last was directed specifically to Starsky, who nodded at once. The doctor, astutely, didn't belabor the point. He closed his folder to smile down at his patient. "I've long been in favor of involving family and loved ones in the care and recovery of seriously injured patients, but I must say, I don't often get such dramatic results. Many others with similar injuries never recover at all, or end up with permanent handicaps. You're a very lucky man, Officer Hutchinson."
Hutch's soft eyes were fixed on Starsky as he quietly agreed. "I know." Starsky colored faintly, but smiled back.
The doctor said his good-byes as both men thanked him sincerely, then left the room.
Hutch broke the silence first. "He's right, I am lucky." His gaze was still firmly on his friend.
Starsky fidgeted uncomfortably. "Yeah, guess you're just too stubborn to quit." He had made no move to draw closer to the bed, still standing by the door.
Hutch noticed, but his frown was in response to Starsky's words. "That's not what I meant, you know that," he protested softly.
Starsky glanced up at him, moved a little farther away, then began talking fast. "Look, Hutch. I know I shouldn't have run away like that, and I'm sorry, but I was..."
"I know." The interruption was quiet but the words and their matter-of-fact tone cut Starsky off instantly.
"You know?" he replied, confused.
Hutch's face matched his own bewilderment as the blond tried to sort out his words. "I... can't remember exactly how or what you said, but I know. You already told me, didn't you?" He looked up at Starsky.
Starsky expelled a long breath. "But... you were out if it. How could you know what I said?" His voice still reflected his doubt.
"I just do. And I accept your apology."
"My--my apology? But I..."
He had slowly been approaching the bed, and Hutch now leaned forward, grimacing at the pull on his ribs, and snagged Starsky's sleeve, tugging him over to sit on the edge of the bed. He then firmly transferred his hold to Starsky's wrist and looked him evenly in the eye. "Doesn't matter. The important thing is, you came back. And you're staying, aren't you?" He studied Starsky's face seriously, expectantly.
Starsky met his eyes this time without hesitation. "Yeah, I'm stayin'," he said sincerely. "At least until we figure out what's next. This is home." He didn't mean LA. Hutch understood.
Everything else they could figure out later.
Author's Note: This story was half-written when I read about a hospital that encourages the "hands on" involvement of family and loved ones in the care and recovery of the patient, case permitting. Since attitude and emotional well-being are crucial parts of any physical recovery, results have been mostly positive. Of course, my first thought was what a natural concept for fanfic! It is this revolutionary idea that I wove into my story in the form of the liberal-minded doctor and a willing Starsky. And so, while fandom has always been conducive to hands-on care, however implausible, this story is medically accurate and realistically possible.
Written in 1996