This story first appeared in the zine, Ouch! #6 (1999). 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: firstname.lastname@example.org and will be forwarded to the author.
With thanks to Katie Penland for inspiration
First he was nowhere, and then suddenly he was just there.
Starsky had no clue where 'there' was, though. He stood--or at least he thought he stood--on a surface he couldn't see, unyielding and uneven, like a rocky field except that there were no rocks visible. Nor much else, for that matter. Nothingness stretched around him, no shapes in the distance, no people, no sounds. Not even a breeze to stir the chalky mist around him, his sole companion in this empty place. Maybe the mist hid what was around him, but Starsky doubted it. Never had he been in a place that felt so profoundly empty.
The only visible difference that he could discern in the landscape around him was that in front of him, the dim light became even darker, a light-quenching black in the distance. The mist also seemed to become heavier there, almost a fog, commingling with the dark to form a suffocating greyness that made Starsky cold inside just to look at it. On the other hand, behind him, the air seemed to lighten both in color and density. It felt . . . peaceful.
Starsky stood in the middle, looking from one direction to the other, trying to decide if this was a trick question. The best route seemed obvious. Was it?
Well, it wasn't as though he could stand there all day, in literal limbo. He made his decision and turned toward the light.
The voice came from behind him, startling him almost into losing his footing, and then he was turning, overjoyed.
"Hutch! Over here!"
"Starsk, are you there?"
"I'm right here. Where are ya?"
"Starsk . . . wish I could do something . . ."
Starsky frowned, confused. "I can hardly hear you. Hutch? What's goin' on?" He could see nothing even though the voice was close enough that he should've been able to spot his partner. Darn the fog! What kind of place was this?
"Just hang in there . . . me . . ."
Starsky began to move toward the voice. "I can't hear ya. Can you hear me?"
He froze uncertainly. "Hutch?" The darkness spread out before him, threatening to lose him in its vastness, and Starsky had no desire to attempt it. He could feel more than the absence of light that way, almost a soullessness that reeked of danger. It would not be easy to go there, or pleasant. And yet, Hutch was that way. It was no trick, he was as certain of that as he was of everything else he somehow knew about that place. Hutch was somewhere out there, waiting for him, perhaps needing him.
"All right, Hutch, I'm comin," he vowed with unusual gravity. It was not a simple decision, but it was an easy one. Starsky took a deep breath and started toward the darkness.
There was no time in that place, at least no cycles that he could measure, but the trek went on and on. He hadn't noticed before how difficult it was to breathe in the heavy air, as if its oppressive character made it harder for his lungs to expand and contract. But as he walked, he found himself often gasping for air, always short of breath. Nor did the uneven ground help. Unable to see it or any other points of reference, he stumbled often, sometimes falling on his hands and knees. Both were already badly scraped, blood mixing with the sweat that seemed to be rolling off of him. It was hot and he was so thirsty.
"Starsk, I'm here."
Starsky choked on relief. "Thank you, God. Hutch? Where were you?"
". . .right here. . . worried about you."
"You're worried. Hey, d'you know what this place is? I got the strangest feeling about it . . . "
"Please . . . for me."
Starsky's heart jumped. "What? Somethin' wrong? Hutch, tell me and I'll--"
The solid, invisible weight suddenly hit him in the chest, knocking him to the ground. He tried to groan at the pain of it, but there was no air in him left to make a sound, just relentless crushing heaviness. Terror filled the part of his mind that could think coherently, increasing his adrenalin, which only demanded more air that he didn't have. Hutch!
Something touched his hand, and he would have ignored it in his desperation if it weren't such a familiar touch. Then Hutch's voice came again, louder this time, as if to make itself heard through the blanket of pain.
"Starsky, breathe. C'mon, partner, for me. Don't fight it, just take a little breath. Just try it, Starsk, please, for me."
Starsky mindlessly, trustingly, did. Instead of fighting the weight and trying to heave in the lungful of air he needed, he inhaled a little bit. The pressure allowed him that much, and the spots in front of his eyes receded some.
His hand was pressed, and he could almost feel each individual, slender finger.
"That's it, buddy . . . to relax . . . small breaths."
The voice was fading again, and Starsky pleaded silently with it not to go. But he couldn't think about that, needing to concentrate on just pulling air into his lungs a little bit at a time, until the suffocating pain slowly began to lift. It was still hard to breathe, but no longer impossible.
The struggle had completely drained him, though, and he could make his body go no further at that point. He curled up on his side on that miserably uncomfortable ground, and slipped into even darker blackness, his final conscious feeling being the tightening of the hand he'd never seen.
"Starsk, please . . ."
Hutch pressed his forehead despairingly against the hot hand he held in both of his own. For a while, it seemed that there had been progress, Starsky's vitals slowly getting better. And then he'd stopped breathing, nearly twisting off the bed in his struggle for air. Or in pain. Hutch had kept talking, coaching desperately even as he'd pushed the button for help, and Starsky was just starting to calm and breathe again when the nurse arrived. But the fight had stolen precious strength, and his partner seemed to be in a deeper coma than before, no longer responding at all to anything Hutch said or did. His fever had risen, too, his body losing ground in the fight with the poison.
I think your friend's going to make it. The doctor had sounded so positive after Hutch had moved heaven and earth to find the antidote in time, and Hutch had believed him, nearly dizzy with the relief. But while the antidote had stopped the poison's progress, it didn't reverse the already-present effects. The last trace of poison was flushed out and they were using every kind of life support method they could to try to help Starsky's weakened system recover, but in the end, it was up to his body to last long enough to heal itself. Only, no one was certain that he had enough strength left to do so, or that the damage already done had not been too great. Starsky's will was incredible, greater than that of any other Hutch had known. But there was only so much a body battered beyond belief could do.
They had no right or good reason for keeping him away from what could possibly turn out to be a death watch, and so Hutch had dug in to wait at his partner's side. No, not just wait. Together, they had always been stronger than apart, and he was determined to fight for his partner's life just as hard as Starsky was. So he didn't let go for a moment except to rub or massage or caress somewhere else, anything to make his being there palpable. And he talked, despite his dry throat and despair.
"C'mon, Starsk, it's been six hours. I haven't gotten any sleep since you woke me up last night . . ." With a choked two-word plea for help because he'd just been attacked. Hutch shivered, then caught himself. "So I'm beat, and here you are, takin' it easy. Time you woke up and let me have a turn, huh?" He rubbed his thumb over the knuckles of the limp hand. Humor had always been Starsky's strength more than his. Hutch closed his eyes and leaned again on their clasped hands. He was so tired.
"Come back to me, partner . . ."
The sense of presence, of not being alone, got through to him before the voice did, but as Starsky lay blinking uncertainly in the darkness, the whisper floated over him like a feather in the onerous, heavy air.
"Come back to me, partner . . ."
"Hutch?" His voice came out a lot weaker than he expected, and suddenly the memories returned, of being in that place, of his indefinite journey and the pain and the struggle to breathe. And Hutch. Where was Hutch?
". . . right here with you, buddy . . .coming?"
Coming where? Starsky pushed himself up, fighting the heaviness that tried to flatten him again, then slowly climbed to his feet. But Hutch was nowhere to be seen, even though he sounded so close, Starsky almost felt like he could reach out and touch him . . .
He glanced down sharply at his hand.
There had been a touch before, he could remember it, squeezing hard as the pain had nearly driven him into oblivion and there was nothing else to hold onto. Maybe Hutch had been there. But where was he now, then? Surely he hadn't left Starsky lying there, unconscious and hurt.
"Help . . . Starsky, I need . . ."
His head swiveled around at the sound of the voice. "Hutch?!" No answer. Hutch needed him! Perhaps he hadn't left by choice. Well, then Starsky would find him. He focused on the direction the voice seemed to be coming from, and started walking again.
It was so hot! He'd shed his jacket already and unbuttoned his shirt partway, but it didn't feel like enough. The air burned him when he breathed it, and it was still a struggle for each lungful of air, as if his lungs were protesting their job. Even worse, something in his middle had tightened up into a wrenching cramp so that he had to stop every few steps to bend over and try to ease it away. Starsky couldn't remember being this thoroughly miserable before and still having to go on, and with no end in sight. He'd have sobbed with frustration if he could spare the air or liquid for it. Instead, he stumbled on over the increasingly irregular ground toward the goal only his heart insisted was out there.
"That's it, Starsk . . . good . . . keep . . ."
Keep what, going? S'all I'm doin', Hutch. Could use some help here.
"It's gonna be okay, partner . . . hang on."
Easy for you to say, Starsky thought wearily.
". . . know you can do it."
His foot landed half-on a larger bump, throwing him off balance, and he fell onto his hands and knees again. Starsky stayed there for a moment, unable to find the energy to move, then slowly sat back on his heels. That was it, he couldn't keep going. Sorry, Hutch, 'm just so tired . . .
Phantom fingers stroked his shoulders, neck, and back, loosening cramped muscles and gathered ache with practiced motion. He drifted with the comfort, so out of place in the hell he was struggling through. Hutch . . .
"Don't give up, buddy, please."
Helplessly, he sat there, feeling those knowing fingers ease away enough of the pain and fatigue to make the load bearable again.
Then the feeling drifted away once more, and with a sigh, Starsky staggered to his feet.
For a moment, he turned, looking at the light behind him. It shone with a feeling of peace, a release from the pain, and his weary body ached to go that way and accept the relief offered.
"Starsky, I need you."
But that voice was coming from the other direction. For whatever reason, Hutch was in the darkness and suffering somewhere, and Starsky had to go through it to find him. Don't know if I can make it, Hutch . . .
"I'm right here . . . can do it . . .know you . . ."
Starsky sighed. And then wrapped an arm around his burning middle and began to walk.
The pain he somehow managed to stick up into the attic of his mind and mostly ignore it, focusing wholly on the uneven rhythm of his steps. But the darkness got deeper and blacker with every step, always when he thought it was impossible to grow any darker. It not only contained no light, but seemed to drain light with a tangible pull, sucking at his spirit, too. It was the darkness of despair and loneliness and pain, and Starsky didn't know how long he could stand to be in it. But each time it got to be so unbearable that he was ready to scream, the fragments of Hutch's steady voice, the only beacon he had, cut through and led him on, a gentle shield against the oppressive dampening of the place.
"Doin' good, Starsk. Soon . . ."
'Til what? he thought fuzzily. His mind no longer excepted anything but the most basic of the sensations, the pain and despair pulling on him from one side, and the hope Hutch promised holding on to him on the other. He'd long given up on Hutch hearing him, but his mind continued the conversations anyway. Soon it'll be over. Soon I won' t. . . The thought wandered off before he could finish it.
"That's it . . . miss you . . . come back, buddy."
He didn't notice when he tripped and fell until he realized a rock was digging into his cheek. With a swallowed sigh, he got up again and kept going. But even to his disconnected mind it registered that the walking was getting harder, the rough path growing worse with each step, slowing him down as he tried to make his way without tripping again. Already he'd slammed his ribs into one particularly large protrusion with enough force that he'd once more lost his ability to suck in air. Hutch's frantic voice had talked him through it yet again. Know y'can't help, bu t. . . could really use you here, blondie. Can't do this alone.
"You're not alone . . . 'm right here." Another unseen stroke of his cheek. Starsky sighed.
'M so tired, Hutch. Hurts . . .
"I know it's hard." The voice ached with sympathy. ". . . be over soon."
Starsky somehow pushed himself to his feet and wearily nodded. Okay.
He staggered on.
"Any change, Doctor?" Hutch watched Franklin anxiously as the doctor checked vital signs and studied the machines. Over twelve hours had gone by, so much longer than anyone had expected it to take for them to know. A half-day that seemed hundreds of times longer than the 24-hour deadline they'd had only the day before.
Franklin shone a light into Starsky's eyes, pursing his lips thoughtfully as the brunet shied minutely away. "How much has he been responding to you, Officer Hutchinson?"
Hutch curled the loose fingers around his hand. "I think he's listening to me sometimes. He turns his head a little bit my way or his fingers move. But I'm not sure." That had been the problem the whole twelve hours. He was never sure where Starsky was or how he was doing, knowing only that his own presence was in some way felt and needed.
The doctor nodded. "He's definitely fighting still, and with more strength than I would've thought possible. But his fever hasn't gone down and his heart has been under great strain. Detective," he looked steadily into Hutch's eyes. "I believe Officer Starsky is almost at the crisis point. If he's able to get past that, he should start getting better, but I'm just not certain he has enough strength or will left. His body has been badly depleted by fighting the effects of the poison."
Hutch nodded automatically. He'd expected as much.
Dr. Franklin patted his shoulder sympathetically. "We'll be standing by to try to revive him if his system crashes. But it just may not be possible. Unfortunately, the antidote did a lot less than we'd hoped, and he's already survived a much harder ordeal than I'd have ever expected."
"I know. I know you did all you could, Doctor. Thank you," Hutch said woodenly.
There was no good response to that, and Franklin finally left.
Hutch leaned forward, one-handedly beginning to wipe Starsky's face with the cold water compress a nurse had brought before, stopping only to gently push back the sodden curls. "Hear that, Starsk? One more hurdle and then you're home free. You can do that. I know you can."
His other hand remained tightly intertwined with his partner's. He had no intention of losing Starsky now, doctors, crises, and all of medical science notwithstanding.
". . . one more . . ."
One more what? Starsky wondered dimly. He didn't think he could handle one more step, let alone anything worse, and yet his feet kept moving on their own, maybe because he lacked the strength to tell them to stop.
There had been brilliant light for a moment before, but instead of illuminating his way, it had blinded him. Hutch's voice had stopped, too, and Starsky briefly wondered if that was it, the end he'd expected but not understood. Then the light went away, and Starsky, out of sheer habit, kept going, his eyes now pressed tightly shut. Not that he could see anything, anyway. Only the fog was visible around him, thick and dark and almost alive with hungry shadows. He didn't want to see it anymore. And the air was even hotter, almost roasting him where he stood. Starsky wasn't sure how he could keep drawing that burning vapor into his uncooperative lungs.
"Almost there, Starsk . . . don't give up."
Giving up's not the same as . . .not bein' able, Hutch, he corrected vaguely. If I can't . . .
"You can do it."
Starsky made an unseen face in the darkness. Know-it-all.
And then he found out what the "one more" was.
His feet, wholly on automatic pilot, nearly walked him right into it, until at the last minute he realized that there was no ground underneath his descending foot. Off balance, he slewed to one side and caught at the rock to keep from going over, huddled at the edge of the chasm that felt very, very deep.
"Starsky," Hutch's voice called from the other side. ". . . waiting for you. Come on. Trust me."
Trust me. That's why he was in this godforsaken place, because he trusted his partner. But there had been some rationality to that trust before. Now it was simply . . . suicide.
"Starsk, you can do it." Hutch was closer now, his words clearer. Maybe just on the other side of the chasm. But that could have been on the other side of the planet, for all it helped him.
God, how can I do this? I want to but I can't.
Someone heard him. A cooling touch skimmed his hot face, then went down to his hand, wrapping around it.
"I'm right here. You can do it."
Starsky swallowed, his heat-swollen throat protesting even that much. He could do it. That was a promise if he ever heard one, and his partner had never lied to him before. Besides, Hutch wouldn't let go. Right?
He was helped to his feet, that soothing contact giving him the strength, and he stood swaying beside the hole with no far side that he could see. For all he knew, it didn't even have another side.
Starsky looked back again briefly at the distant light, feeling the stirring of lighter air and the promise of peace it offered. It would be so easy to turn back. Facing forward again just revealed fathomless, hellish darkness and the invisible bottomless hole, while the air around him grew unbreathably fiery. Now or never.
There was a moment of weightlessness, floating, release from the heat and the fog and the unbearable pressure. He gasped at the sudden transition, the freedom of it.
And then, to his horror, he was falling.
The hand in his own suddenly snagged him, jerking him to a stop in his descent. He hung there momentarily, suspended in emptiness and utterly confused, and then it began to pull him, he wasn't even sure in what direction anymore. He had no strength to help, only held on desperately. The single hand became a pair, and they clung to him even after he was safe.
For abruptly he realized he was safe, even if he didn't know where. But wherever it was, was soft and smooth and cool, such a welcome relief from the earlier place that he ached with relief.
Still Hutch's voice, but its distant, vague quality was gone. This time it sounded next to his ear.
Out of curiosity, Starsky scraped together enough energy from the bottom of the well to open his eyes. It took a minute, both to perform that complicated function and to adjust to the light--where did that come from?--that streamed in.
There was a room around him, with blessedly white walls and furniture. And Hutch, standing over him close enough to really touch this time. In fact, Starsky realized, he was touching, his hands wrapped still in the grip that had hung onto him before and saved him from falling. He would have liked to ask how that was possible, or where they'd been, or at least squeeze the hands that held so desperately on to his. But he didn't have that much left in him. The only way he could manage even a smile was through his gaze.
It was apparently enough for Hutch. Those expressive blue eyes he knew better than his own were so full of gentle concern that Hutch didn't need to say a word, either, for Starsky to understand.
But he did, loosening a hand long enough to rest it against the side of Starsky's face. "Welcome back, partner," he whispered. "I knew you could do it."
I didn't, not by myself, Starsky corrected sleepily in his head. But he could straighten that out later. For now, it was enough that it was all over and okay. Both of them were.
Starsky leaned into the hand that cradled his cheek, and with a deep sigh of contentment that hardly hurt at all, he was asleep.
Written in 1998