This story first appeared in the zine, Wizard's Cauldron (1998). Comments on this story can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org and will be forwarded to the author.
If Choose I Must
K Hanna Korossy
"...and so John Wayne had enough, and he finally slugs Victor McLaglen right in the jaw. And McLaglen loves it! So does the whole town." Starsky paused in his animated relation of the movie to glance to the side at his audience.
Hutch was deep in thought.
That much was obvious from the expression, the cant of the head, the lack of response to Starsky's cheerful running on. While Starsky had noticed from the start that he had no audience, nothing new in and of itself, he'd almost come to the end of his tale and Hutch still hadn't snapped out of it. Which was cause for concern. A thoughtful Hutch usually meant depression or acerbity, which, in turn, meant Starsky would have to either cheer him up or put up with him for a while after. Not that he minded -- that was just Hutch. Only... Starsky still sometimes wished his friend was a little less introspective.
"...Anyway, they have this big fight." He paused. "But then Roger Ramjet arrives to save the day, and after Mickey Mouse gets elected president, they all live happily ever after. Whaddaya think?" He half-turned in the driver's seat to fix his partner with a questioning look.
Hutch started. He was not so tuned-out as to not realize that an answer was now expected of him. "Oh, yeah, Starsk, sounds great," he grinned.
Starsky sighed. Sometimes it was so easy, it wasn't even fun. "Okay, blondie, what's on your mind?"
Hutch had the grace not to look startled, merely blushed a little. "I'm just thinking."
"I know that," Starsky said with exaggerated patience. "I mean, what are you thinkin' so much about."
There was a pause, and Starsky finally began to wonder if he was being ignored. He looked over at his passenger again to find that this time Hutch seemed to be trying to find the words to express what he wanted to say. Starsky turned his attention back to the road and waited, a hint of a smile at the corner of his mouth even as he felt a touch of uneasiness. Somehow, he had a feeling he was going to get a headache from this discussion.
Hutch finally spoke. "You know what you were talking about a few weeks ago, about what if things had been different, if your name started with an 'A'?" He looked raptly at Starsky.
Starsky reciprocated, driving on automatic as he concentrated on what Hutch was saying. "Yeah, how I mighta been a doctor. So?" That conversation seemed years away, the mess with Alex Drew having all but struck it out of his head.
"Well, I was just wondering about what if I hadn't become a cop? Or what if you hadn't come out to L.A.? Or what if we'd never met or become partners?"
Starsky frowned. His musings had been just in fun, an interesting idea. Hutch's were downright disturbing. "Why're you thinkin' about that?" he demanded with a hint of trepidation.
Hutch didn't seem to notice. "You know, I talked to Mr. McDermont after the bomb killed Mac. All he could say was that he'd told Mac that it wasn't worth it, that he'd just end up getting killed and nobody would care..." His voice ran down thoughtfully.
Starsky cringed. Philosophizing was not his thing, and this subject was a particularly unpleasant one. For him, it had always been very simple: you did the job as best you could and watched your partner's back like your own. Everything else was beyond his control and thus pointless to worry about. Hutch, however, had never let that stop him. Starsky didn't even have to know his partner thoroughly to follow the train of thought from Mac's father to 'what ifs'. What if's were what being a cop was all about. And yet... "That's not true, Hutch, and you know it. What we do does make a difference and people do care. All the good people we're protecting care. Everyone else on the force cares." Then, under his breath, "I care."
The last finally reached the blond. Hutch started and looked at his partner closely for the first time, taking in the slightly defensive posture and the gaze fixed on the road. He suddenly smiled, realizing that his mental exercise was getting to his partner. And Starsky worried that he took things too seriously. "Hey," he said, patting Starsky's arm, feeling the wiredrawn tension in the other.
"Yeah?" Wary blue eyes came up to meet his.
Hutch sighed inwardly, annoyed with himself for getting carried away and disquieting his partner. He grinned again with a deliberate effort at cheerfulness. "It's almost time for dinner, isn't it? What do you say we clock out and try that place you've been telling me about?"
It never ceased to amaze him that his partner could be completely focused and intense when he needed to be, with an agility of mind and depth of emotion that often floored Hutch, and the very next moment evince such a childlike simplicity and innocence that it awoke every big brother instinct in the blond. And no one knew the key to that change like he did. Even as he watched, the uneasiness in the sapphire eyes was replaced with a spark of pleasure, both at the thought of food and at the lightening of the other that he was so attuned to. "The Chinese place?" At Hutch's nod, he straightened and grinned. "You are gonna love this place! If Harry's cooking, he's supposed to make the best Moo Shu Pork..."
Hutch had just leaned back contentedly to listen when the radio interrupted.
"484 reported on corner of 11th and Kenmore. All units in area, please respond."
Hutch glanced up at the passing street sign. 9th St. He looked over at Starsky who shrugged and nodded, then picked up the radio as the Torino sped up.
"Zebra 3, we are responding."
They were silent as the car wove through traffic, food temporarily forgotten. A 484 -- a robbery -- usually meant a simple purse snatching where they'd be too late to do anything but talk to the victim, but there was always the chance of something more, of a life and death situation, of choices to be made. The possibilities were sobering and a few minutes of mental preparation always helped.
The Torino pulled up sharply to the curb on 11th Street, Hutch's revolver already in hand as he jumped out of the car. Then ducked abruptly, motioning to Starsky to do the same. Starsky did, crawling around to the back of the car to meet his partner. "What?"
"211. Guy's in the store with a knife and he's got a girl," Hutch's voice was terse as he glanced up and down the street, surveying the situation.
"I'll go around t'the back," Starsky responded, checking his own gun. Two pairs of blue eyes met for a fraction of a second, then he stole around to the front of the car, crouching down out of sight. Hutch watched him steadily until he disappeared around the side of the building, then his attention turned back to the store's interior.
Eyes fixed on the knife-wielder, Hutch waited until the man turned slightly away from him, then dashed out of hiding to crouch by the front door, mentally picturing his partner's similar actions at the rear of the store. After a moment, Hutch turned a little, risking a quick look in. And froze. There were two of them, another man coming up behind the first, dragging a terrified clerk along with him. The second man, large and mean-looking, didn't appear to be armed, but then he didn't look like he needed a weapon. And his presence alone caused several complications, not the least of which was that Starsky didn't know he had two people to watch out for.
Hutch pulled back, shutting his eyes tightly for a moment, mentally following where Starsky was and what he would do. And, at the right moment, he acted. Starsky came in through the back door quietly just as Hutch rushed in the front one, gun at ready.
Both men, as expected, turned to look at him, the second one releasing the clerk in surprise. Starsky was moving up behind the knife-wielder when the larger felon noticed him out of the corner of an eye and, panicking, threw himself at the detective. He moved incredibly fast for the large man that he was, and before Hutch could fire, the man had already slammed into Starsky, knocking him onto the floor. Starsky's gun went skittering across the floor under a shelf and his attacker dove for the back door, hidden from Hutch's view now by a row of shelves.
The second man, after the initial moment of shock, had taken advantage of the distraction of the scuffle, and, still using his hostage as a shield, hurried out the door after his companion.
Hutch cursed silently and ran forward, pausing in mid-stride to pull Starsky back onto his feet and make sure he was okay. Then the two detectives were in pursuit.
Behind the store was a back room that only took a second to confirm was empty. Hutch, as the only one armed, took the lead through the back door, crashing out into what he was surprised to find was a small back hall with one door, apparently leading outside, and a staircase leading upward. Hutch was already reaching for the door when Starsky said shortly, "I locked it," and began up the stairs.
They came out onto the roof a moment later. Starsky rolled out and away, moving quickly to provide an elusive target, and Hutch followed suit.
The roof was small but had a stairwell house at the other end, partly blocking their view. Only one man was in sight, the knifeman, standing dangerously close to the edge of the roof with his hostage but he turned back defiantly to meet the detectives.
"Stand back or I'll cut her!"
The voice, Hutch noted, was scared. Good and bad news -- scared people did stupid things, which could either work for him and Starsky, or endanger the girl. He felt more than saw his partner drift off to one side, heading unobtrusively toward the stairwell house to find the other felon.
Hutch turned his concentration back full to the knife-wielder in front of him. "Okay, buddy," he said steadily, "let her go. You're not goin' anywhere with her. Make it easy on yourself."
The man hesitated, washed-out grey eyes flicking nervously around the roof, looking for a nonexistent way out. The nervous eyes flicked back to Hutch, gauging him.
Hutch didn't waver.
The felon was becoming more agitated under the steady stare and took a nervous step back, right up to the edge of the roof. One foot almost slipped off, and the momentary unbalance made him even more jumpy. "Stand back, man!" he yelled again, voice high and thin.
Hutch moved forward unconsciously as the knifeman's maneuvering almost took him and the girl over the edge. He quickly glanced for the first time at the girl, a sweet-looking young thing who stared at him with terrified, tear-filled eyes, not daring to move or make a sound. He spared her a quick comforting glance, then turned an unwavering glare back at the man who still held her tightly around the neck.
The steely look did it. Hutch could see the fear snap in the knifeman's eyes a moment before he pushed the girl away, sending her falling over the edge, and tried to lunge at Hutch.
Hutch stepped aside almost casually, tripping the charging man, helplessly watching as the girl fell... and caught herself on the edge of the roof. For the first time, she screamed.
The next few moments began to stretch into timelessness. Hutch paused only for a fraction of a second to smash a doubled fist into the felon's back. The man dropped like a stone. Even as he did, Hutch was already turning toward the girl, silently entreating her to hold on until he got there.
Which was when Starsky cried out. For him.
Hutch froze, eyes inexorably drawn to the scene at the other end of the roof. Starsky had apparently been making his way around the stairwell when the second felon had caught him by surprise from behind, locking his arms around the brunet's neck. The abbreviated cry was all Starsky was able to utter before the beefy arms cut off his air. He struggled in the larger man's arms, but was neither strong enough nor had the proper leverage to shake him off. His movements grew weaker even as Hutch watched.
The girl screamed again, calling for help, and Hutch's eyes went back to her, knowing before he looked that she was slipping and would fall any second. There was no time.
This was what he'd been trained for, instantaneous decisions. An integral part of being a cop. As was saving the innocent, putting the public before their own well-being. Both he and Starsky had sworn that. Starsky.
He was at the ledge in a moment, latching on to the girl's hands. "It's okay," he soothed, "I've got you. Try to push yourself up against the side of the building."
He had good footing and the girl was rational enough to do her best to help. As he locked his hands more tightly around her wrists, she held onto him and pushed herself up. In less than a minute, she was safely on top again, crying quietly. A minute too long.
Hutch said a few quick words to her, then turned toward the far end of the roof with dread. Hot anger began to rise in him when he saw the second man still had a stranglehold on Starsky, who now hung limp and unmoving in his grasp. What if...
Hutch launched himself at the big man with almost uncontrollable fury. Each second seemed to be ticking away audibly in his mind -- maybe it was too late. Time, there wasn't enough time...
He had never moved so fast.
Reaching the felon, he put all his momentum into smashing his gun into the man's head, feeling no satisfaction when the giant went limp, releasing his victim. Hutch caught Starsky before he hit the ground.
His white face was touched with blue, body slack and lifeless. No breathing. No movement. What if...
Hutch no longer trusted his thoughts. He went into automatic and lay the other flat, briskly checking for any sign of breathing.
Tilting the victim's head back, he tried two breaths, desperately hoping that they would go in, that the trachea wasn't crushed or blocked. The chest slowly rose and fell as he watched. He still felt empty, though. There was a long way to go.
Next, Hutch felt along the carotid artery for a heartbeat and found one, not strong or fast enough, but there. He refused to let hope stir in him, moving mechanically back to the head to tilt and pinch the nose shut and breathe, count to five, breathe. After twelve breaths, he stopped to check the pulse again, finding it the same as before, then returned to breathing, counting, breathing.
The girl had collected herself and hesitantly come up next to him. Hutch paused a precious moment to tell her to call an ambulance and she left. Breathe. He looked up to visually check the two felons, but both still lay still and unmoving. Breathe! His actions were pure reflex, his mind an utter blank except for the two words that played through it inanely, over and over again.
What if, what if...
The motionless form under him suddenly came to life. Starsky shuddered violently, dislodging his partner, then began to cough, first weakly, then more harshly as he became increasingly aware and struggled to get air.
Hutch instantly moved down into his partner's line of vision, grasping his shoulders to try and steady him. "Starsky, relax. Take it easy. Shallow breaths... that's it. Don't fight it."
Starsky's eyes opened and found him, latching on to him while struggling to slow the coughing and get enough air. Hutch met the frightened eyes steadily, softly coaching his friend, who listened to him, trying to respond, trusting him even in half-consciousness. The blond continued to soothe until his partner was finally calmed and quiet, still gasping but able to breathe, and Starsky's eyes closed again in exhaustion. His breathing continued to steady as Hutch slumped onto the pavement next to him, one hand still tightly twisted in Starsky's shirt.
What if I had to choose and Starsky almost died? And then, what if he lived?
His mind finally unfroze. By the time the paramedics arrived, both felons were checked and cuffed and Hutch had given instructions to two uniforms who had also appeared. And his red-rimmed eyes were hidden behind his sunglasses.
Starsky arrived at the hospital awake and hoarsely protesting that he didn't need a hospital. Hutch and the medical workers disagreed, but his condition was non-threatening enough that Hutch was allowed to stay in the ER with his partner. He watched impassively from one side as a resident and a nurse checked the detective out, sending him upstairs briefly for x-rays. In the end, the diagnosis was a relief if not a surprise: bed rest for the day, and staying quiet for a few days after while his sore throat healed. Hutch called Dobey from the hospital and got the same instructions. He filled out the necessary reams of paperwork and they were sent home.
Starsky curled up in the front seat of the Torino in what Hutch thought had to be an extremely uncomfortable position, and promptly went to sleep. He was still pale and the bruises around his neck were painfully livid, but Hutch found his eyes drawn back again and again to the sleeping figure. His mind knew that Starsky was all right but his heart was harder to convince. Just like he knew in his head that he had done right, that Starsky wouldn't blame him, that the girl would've died otherwise. And yet felt in his heart that because of him and the Job, his best friend had almost died that day.
How could he just accept that?
A solution wasn't any closer when they got to Starsky's, and he stayed long enough to see his partner settled in bed. He couldn't resist lingering another moment to watch the other, trying to believe that Starsky really was okay. As he reluctantly turned to leave, a quiet voice spoke up.
"Where ya goin'?"
Surprised, he looked back. Clear blue eyes were looking at him curiously. "I thought you were asleep. Uh...I havta go book those two guys from the robbery."
Starsky frowned, digesting that, then nodded. "You're comin' back, aren't ya?" The question was almost a statement, said around a yawn.
Hutch hesitated. Actually, he hadn't planned on returning. Too many reminders at the moment of something he only wanted to forget. "The doctor says-"
His partner frowned again, this time puzzled. Something was going on that his fuzzy mind couldn't seem to put together at the moment. Which made Hutch being there all the more important. "Please?" he simply cut in.
It wasn't a word they needed or used very often with each other. Hutch bowed his head, then nodded in resignation. "Okay. I'll be back in a few hours. You sleep," he added firmly.
Temporarily satisfied, Starsky smiled at him and obediently burrowed under the covers.
A few minutes later, Hutch left, his heart no lighter for the reassurance of his partner's safety. He wasn't even sure what he was feeling anymore, except that it had settled like a heavy weight on his shoulders.
What if I had to choose and he died?
He had no answer. Setting his jaw, he strode down to the Torino, got in, and set off for Parker.
It was more than a few hours before he was done in booking. The bigger man, Hutch heard without remorse, had been taken to the hospital with a concussion and had to be processed separately from his partner. It took the detective most of the rest of the day to do the paperwork, take care of the evidence, speak to the D.A., and report everything to Dobey. Word had also gotten around quickly about Starsky, which led to colleagues interrupting all day with sober inquiries about his partner's condition. Hutch was exhausted by the time he finally got away from the office and left for Starsky's place.
Outside the house, he pulled up behind his own car that he'd left there just that morning, so unbelievably long ago. It had seemed natural to keep his partner's car with him before, a little bit of his partner's presence, but now he played momentarily with the idea of just switching cars and going home. It would be easier: not thinking, not remembering. But he had promised. And an embarrassingly terrified little corner of his mind badly wanted to see Starsky again and try to find relief from his doubts. He got out of the car and went inside.
To his surprise, his partner was neither in bed nor asleep as Hutch soundlessly slipped through the door. The TV was on some detective show, of all things, and Starsky turned his head a little to look at him as he entered. Hutch noted the wince the movement caused and quickly stepped around to the front of the couch. "What're you doing up?" he asked suspiciously.
Starsky didn't seem to mind the accusatory tone and shrugged good-naturedly. "I got tired of sleepin'." His voice was still hoarse and he talked quietly.
Hutch shook his head, trying not to smile despite himself. Only Starsky could think of an answer like that. "Yeah, well, you should've at least stayed in bed," he groused pleasantly as he headed into the kitchen. "Don't blame me if you lose your voice completely tomorrow."
"I won't," was the grumbled reply. In the privacy of the kitchen, Hutch grinned at the petulant tone, then sobered as he considered the words. No, Starsky wouldn't blame him. Not for anything.
He busied himself for a moment filling the kettle with water and putting it on, then getting out the preparations for tea. Everything set, Hutch reluctantly wandered back out into the living room. The TV was off and he felt Starsky's eyes on him as he tiredly pulled off his jacket and, as an afterthought, his holster, and plunked down into the deep chair next to the couch.
"So where were ya so long?"
The quiet question startled him; it took him a moment to realize Starsky meant that evening. That was safe. He related in detail all the hurdles of booking and paperwork he'd jumped over, ending with a list of everyone who'd sent their well-wishes to the invalid.
Starsky grinned appreciatively both at the hassle he'd manage to miss out on, and the thought of being missed, but his smile soon faded as heavy silence settled on the room. Earlier feelings of unease returned as he studied the blond's drawn face. They faced close calls in their job nearly every day, a reality they both lived with. But for a while there, Hutch had had to fight for Starsky's life with every reason to believe he'd lose. That sort of thing left an indelible impression. Especially on a heavy thinker like his partner. Hutch seemed disinclined to say anything more, though, and Starsky finally swallowed painfully and spoke up.
The other started at the sound of his voice, then looked up in confusion. "What?"
"Penny. For your thoughts."
"Oh." It didn't invoke a smile as he'd hoped, but Hutch seemed to be figuring out how to put something into words, and Starsky patiently waited on him. Finally, the blond looked up at Starsky and asked instead, "What do you remember about today?"
Starsky gamely stopped to think for a moment. "Well, uh, you were facin' down the guy with the knife and I was lookin' for Goliath, but he snuck up on me." He grimaced with self-annoyance at the thought. "Next thing I knew, I was flat on my back, tryin' to remember how to breathe, and you were bendin' over me."
Hutch nodded, then lapsed into silence for another moment. "Didn't you wonder why it took so long for me to get to you?" he asked, looking off past Starsky's shoulder at nothing in particular.
He still saw the immediate, puzzled shake of the dark head. "Uh-uh. You had that other guy t'take care of first," Starsky said.
"The other guy was down by the time I heard you yell," Hutch's voice was subdued. "But he dropped the girl off the roof first." He paused, sensing Starsky leaning forward, listening attentively. "She caught the ledge, but she was slipping. I was just about to get her when you called me." He winced in memory of that awful moment.
Starsky's face cleared in sudden comprehension, his eyes warm with compassion. He put a hand on the blond's nearest leg. "Hell of a decision, partner," he whispered.
Hutch nodded silently.
"You're not feelin' guilty about it, are ya?" Starsky shook his head.
"No...," was the reluctant reply.
"Good," Starsky said firmly. "Y'didn't have any choice. 'Sides, everything turned out okay."
Hutch squeezed his eyes shut, leaning back in the chair. "It almost didn't. When I saw that you weren't breathing..."
The hand gently kneaded his leg. "I know," Starsky sighed.
There was a moment of silence. Hutch finally looked at his partner again. "Starsk, I don't know if I can make a decision like that again. I shouldn't have to -- we shouldn't have to," he said emphatically.
The kettle began to whistle from out in the kitchen. The two men stared at each other for a minute before Hutch finally pushed himself up and went into the kitchen.
Starsky sat still, thinking. Still playing 'what if,' partner? Not like he hadn't asked himself some of the same questions before. First, it had been the idea of possibly giving his life for the Job someday. He'd made peace with that long ago, back at the Academy still. But then it had also become sacrificing Hutch in the line of duty. He still didn't have an answer for that one, nor did he expect he ever would. It was not his decision to make, though. Not alone.
Hutch returned, balancing two cups of tea on saucers. For the first time, Starsky realized what the other had been working on out in the kitchen and sipped the hot beverage gratefully, his sore throat eased almost at once. "Thanks," he whispered. The blond smiled a response and took his seat again, stirring his own drink slowly.
Starsky waited another minute, drinking most of his tea, then placed it carefully on the table. "Hutch, I've wanted to be a cop ever since I was old enough to know what that meant." His partner looked up at him, not seeming surprised at the apparent change of topic, listening attentively. "I'd see Pop in his uniform, the way people respected him out on the street..." He smiled. "He used to tell me these stories, too. I couldn't wait t'grow up and be just like him." The smile faded. "After he died, I was angry at him, at the badge, at God, everybody. Even Ma didn't know what to do for me. That's when she decided to send me out here." His gaze had grown reflective, no longer in the present, but he abruptly pulled himself back to meet his partner's steady look. "Y'know what happened?"
Hutch shook his head, transfixed.
"Pop's partner took me for a walk one day before I left. I didn't wanna listen to him, but he started tellin' me about all the people my dad had helped, 'n the reason he became a cop. He believed in the Job. Even if it cost him his life, he believed he was doin' something important. I didn't like it, but I understood it. I guess I still do." The last was added nearly breathlessly.
"Starsky...," Hutch sighed.
"Look," his partner interrupted, talking as loudly and as persuasively as he could. "How likely d'ya think it is that something like this would happen again, huh? And even if it did, chances are it would turn out just like today."
There was a logic in that that Hutch couldn't deny. He believed in being a cop, too, despite the failures and dead-ends and close calls. Every grateful thanks, every person they saved or helped or reassured reminded him of why he'd first entered those Academy gates. Nevertheless, the possibilities still scared him...
Starsky, of course, knew. "Leave the 'what ifs' alone, Hutch," he whispered gently. "I don't wanna think about what if we never met or what if you died or I died. We're here now. And we're cops because we're good at it and we believe in it. Right?" His voice was running out, leaving the last word almost soundless.
Hutch stared at him solemnly for a moment, then nodded, managing a little smile. Maybe there hadn't been a choice after all. At least, not one he'd had to make by himself. "Yeah," he quietly agreed.
Starsky returned the grin, then pilfered Hutch's cup and leaned back in the couch, silently encouraging his partner to stay and keep him company.
Shaking his head with mock annoyance but feeling surprisingly content, Hutch obediently started up the one-sided conversation.
A half an hour and several cups of tea later, he shooed a dozing Starsky off to bed and quietly let himself out of the house. Starsky was safe, Hutch had no regrets, and they both had faith in what they did. The future would take care of itself; the choices had all been made.
Humming to himself, he got in his car and turned toward home.
Written in 1997