This story first appeared in the zine, Our Favorite Things #15 (1999).Comments on this story can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org and will be forwarded to the author.
K Hanna Korossy
It had been a completely random attack, not job-related at all. In fact, since the gang had been motivated only by "boredom," as it would later come out, they hadn't even taken the wallet, let alone checked the ID with badge inside. The gun was a different matter, but even that had raised few eyebrows among the group of teenagers for whom life on the streets naturally included guns and violence. And hurting the innocent.
Some more than others.
When Hutch had said good-bye to his partner that evening, it had been with fond exasperation. They both had had their share of strikes from cupid's arrow, the ladies about whom they talked their partner's ear off until the other threatened in kind tones to throw them out of the car at top speed. This time it was Starsky's turn. Gwen wasn't the one, at least not yet, but she was different from Starsky's typical choice of companionship, the kind who maybe, in time, could become the one. Hutch had met her only once; the special ones they didn't double date with but there was always the event of Introduction to the Partner, another version of "bringing her home to meet the family." Some girls didn't get it, and somehow they were the ones who didn't end up lasting. And the few who did: Terry, Gillian... Well, God alone knew what could have been.
Gwen had passed inspection. Hutch liked her immediately, and his estimation only increased when she obviously sized him up too, and then smiled, honestly. Hutch had seen his partner relax at the sight, face alit with a grin and a sparkle in his eye that said this was one he'd be pursuing. And Hutch had wished him heartfelt luck. Starsky deserved a girl like that, especially after the heartbreak of losing Terry...
One more loss...
Hutch shook his head wearily as he said his last silent farewell and pulled the blanket over the delicate white face. Another lover, another chance gone. A nod to the morgue attendant and the slab was slid back into place, the door shut. On it already was the temporary tag: Guinevere Hastings.
Dobey's hand rested heavily on his shoulder for a moment, reminding him the captain had been there by his side throughout, and he finally nodded, giving his boss--his friend--some reassurance that he would be all right. Dobey patted him once, not knowing what to say, then went off to file the positive identification so that paperwork could go through and kin be notified. There would be no words for them, either, and yet what choice did they have?
Feeling every bit the hundred years the captain looked, Hutch climbed the hospital stairs towards the surgery floor, heading for the one place where words weren't needed at all.
"Excuse me," he snagged a passing nurse as he approached the nurses' station. "Is there any news yet?"
She knew--they all did, as word got around quickly about an injured police officer--and smiled at him with a sympathetic shake of the head. Hutch had not really expected anything different, not so soon. If he'd thought Starsky would be out that quickly, he wouldn't have been able to make himself go down and do the identification. He sat down to wait.
A random attack, apparently. If that made it worse or better, he didn't know. There had been no robbery involved, so revenge or another motive had been suspected at first, but too much hadn't fit: the focus on Gwen, the unprofessional method and lack of fatal injury done to Starsky. The area of town was not the best and there had been other attacks locally with the same M.O., some with survivors, most without. He had been reminded over and over again that Starsky had been lucky. Broken ribs, broken nose, minor bleeding inside that they were currently fixing...and watching Gwen murdered in front of him. They wouldn't even know which blow killed her until the autopsy was done. The prognosis was good for his partner, but it was hard for the blond to feel anything close to gratitude.
Hutch had been getting ready for bed when the call had come in, and he'd been down at the hospital within fifteen minutes, just in time to make the identification on his best friend's girl. One life snuffed out and another...well, he knew more had been broken that evening than the doctors could fix. Most of their colleagues were out combing the streets with feverish determination to find the animals responsible for the attack, but Hutch felt strangely ambivalent about their fate. His own assignment that night was right there in that building.
It would be harder than he feared.
The surgery had been successful, Starsky's condition upgraded to good and allowing him a room instead of the ICU. Police partners had privileges like spouses and parents, particularly in lieu of present spouses and parents, and no one had even tried to talk him out of going to sit with Starsky once he'd been settled. The drugs would keep him under for a while, the doctor said, but the surgery had not been invasive and he was expected to wake up before long, ideally ready to go home within a few days. After the first sight of his partner, though, Hutch doubted it would be that easy.
Starsky was curled up on his left side in deference to the five broken ribs on the right, and a single IV was threaded into the immobilized right arm. The left was tucked under his chin, giving the misleading impression of peaceful sleep. Or defensiveness. Whether it was the body language or the lines that went deep in his partner's face, Hutch wasn't sure, but he knew gut-certain that things were not as simple as a few painful injuries and several days in the hospital. Damage to the soul often healed so much slower than that to the body.
Hutch walked over to the bed with painful slowness and stood gazing down at his friend, wincing at the sight of the tape on the broken nose, the discolored bruises. Injury always made his tough partner seem so suddenly, disturbingly frail, and the worry about Starsky's spirit that continued to twist his stomach didn't help. His chances were supposed to be better than good...
Hutch absently pulled the ugly green vinyl chair closer with one foot, stripping his jacket off as he did and dropping it onto the chair arm. The doctor had said the drugs would keep Starsky under for a few hours, rest his body badly needed, then Hutch could try to wake him. The blond fully intended to do just that. The sooner he had Starsky grousing and running on at him, the better he'd feel.
In the meantime, communication had other lines. Hutch gently uncurled the left hand that was nearly clenched, and drew it down, closer to him. He wove the warm, stiff fingers between his own and rested their joined hands on the edge of the bed as he moved the chair up, getting comfortable. The link was important. Somehow it felt like Starsky would need something to bring him back. And someone to come back to.
Hutch was practical, or maybe it was just the result of too much experience with hospital vigils. He'd slept while his partner did, head folded slightly awkwardly on his free arm as it rested on the hospital bed. He didn't used to be able to sleep just anywhere, but it was a habit cops usually learned to cultivate and he was no exception.
Rattle and movement woke him sharply, fully aware at once, another cop instinct. The nurse responsible for the noise smiled as she changed the IV bag next to him.
"How long has it been?" Hutch knuckled his gritty eyes. Being awake in mind and in body were two different things.
"Since the surgery? Eight hours. Hopefully he'll be coming around soon, if only in snatches."
He nodded. Starsky had been unconscious ever since he'd been found at the scene of the attack by a passing squad car, and while there appeared to be no serious head injury, the doctor was still anxious he wake up to check his lucidity. He waited until the nurse finished her business and left, then turned to his partner.
The uneasiness grew at what he saw. If anything, the brunet looked even worse than before. Hutch knew that was normal as bruises darkened to their full glory and eyes became bruised-looking and sunken from trauma, but he couldn't shake the feeling that Starsky was withdrawing, hurting and confused.
"Starsk?" he tried, carefully pressing the closer shoulder. No response, not even a flicker, just that even stronger feeling of distance. "Starsky?" he repeated. Nothing he said stirred a response.
It was almost as if he was too late, the thought hit with frightening clarity. Like Starsky was already gone. He stared in consternation at his partner, a tough cop on the streets, a gleeful kid in private, a caring friend always. None of that was present now, as if something had broken inside and it had all seeped away.
Or been locked away, too painful to deal with?
Which meant it was time for a little gentle guidance.
His hand was still wrapped up in Starsky's and he let it stay, but with his free hand he began to stroke the dark curls, a gesture of familiar intimacy he knew his partner would recognize. He'd done the same when Starsky had been huddled in his arms outside Janos Martini's studio, fighting a losing battle against the poison, and again when Starsky had cried into his shoulder after Terry had died. They didn't often say it--who did?--but the touch had always been a daily way of showing how they felt. One of many.
He leaned close, face only inches away from his partner's until he could feel the faint breaths against cheek. "Starsk, it's me. It's Hutch. You wanna wake up for me?"
Not even a stir, or a hitch of the pulse he felt throbbing against their conjoined hands.
"You gonna be stubborn about this, buddy? I really could use you here. Hate to admit it, but you've got me pretty worried. The doctor says you're gonna be just fine, but I'd still kinda like to hear it from you myself."
His hand had strayed to the curls in front, the ones that infringed on one particularly nasty bruise stretching down the side of Starsky's face. He carefully brushed back the dark hair to survey the rest of the abrasion, but it stretched back into the hairline. Hutch winced. That his partner had gotten away without more serious damage, particularly a head injury, was a miracle indeed.
"I know about Gwen," his voice got quieter. "And I know what it must've been like for you. I'm sorry, Starsk, she was special. I liked her, too. The guys are going full steam on this one; they're gonna have the gang rounded up in no time, Gabe told me. I know it won't fix everything...but it might help Gwen's parents. Maybe you, too."
Hutch had tucked the unruly curls back behind Starsky's ear and now hovered over the bruised cheek, finally caressing with two fingers the undamaged area below it. Sensation on the face was supposed to be particularly stimulating and Hutch hoped for some reaction, but that wasn't the reason for the knowing touch. After a brutal attack out of the blue, an even more violent assault on the soul, Starsky could use all the comfort and support he could get, propriety be damned. Not everyone understood the bond they shared, but that had never mattered. He knew what his friend needed.
"Starsk, you're safe now. I've got you and I won't let go, so if you don't get back here, I'm gonna have to come after you. And you know I'll do it. C'mon, partner, I need you."
His voice fell again, nearly whispering now.
"You're safe with me. I'll take care of you, but I need you, too."
Not the slightest hint of response, of eye movement under the closed lids or a change of vitals indicating he was getting through at all. But they'd never needed the tangibles of this world before and he didn't much now. Hutch rested his head wearily on his partner's pillow, still facing him, and kept talking, his arm now settled on Starsky's shoulder and beginning a slow, steady rub of the back of his partner's neck.
"I'm right here," Hutch said softly.
He was--but he wished he was where Starsky was instead.
After a minute, he began talking again.
Night slipped into day even without his interest or notice.
The doctor came in more than once, frowning over Starsky's lack of response, over the continued depressed readings. Theories abounded, even more so did hopes and possibilities, and Hutch watched them try the more plausible ones, letting them work around him but not dislodge him. More blood taken, a complete once-over, a change of medication. He drew the line at the CAT scan, unwilling to let go. Hutch didn't even try to explain to the doctor why, but he just couldn't let go.
The captain came to visit more than once, to the point where Hutch finally gently sent him home to his own family. Other friends, too, the closer ones who knew their support would help but who didn't stay long enough to be distracting. If anyone thought Hutch's determination or hands-on approach odd, no one said it. But most of the time it was just the two of them, and Hutch was grateful for the chance to concentrate.
In the past, sometimes one of them carried on meaningless chatter for the sake of the ailing other in order to provide company, a reassurance of presence. And other times it was genuine, soul-searching talk, the kind that made its intensity felt and invited participation. That was what Hutch was engaged in now, too intent on drawing his partner back to him to bother with mindless running on.
"You know, after Terry died, I didn't admit it then but I was pretty worried about you. She almost took you with her. I didn't know what to do except be there for you, like you were for me when Gillian died." That still made him wince his eyes shut, the memory of her broken body, of the grief that had swept him off his feet. For a short time, Starsky truly had made the difference between losing it and surviving. "I was really happy for you when you met Gwen--figured you had finally healed enough. And you were so happy...I wish..."
He tapered off, exhausted, resting his forehead against the edge of the bed for a minute. The nap from the night before would have been enough to tide him over on a normal day, but a hospital vigil, for all its inactivity, was hardly normal or restful. Sharing his heart was no burden, not with the one person who probably knew it better than he, but all of the other emotions and memories he was digging up and sorting through were draining. Not to mention being unable to forget the lady he'd left in the morgue a few floors below.
"I just wish you could've had a chance to be happy with her, or at least had a chance to see if you could. It doesn't seem fair. 'Ours is not to question why'--I know that, but sometimes you wonder..." Or at least he wondered. Starsky seemed much more inclined to accept the bad with the good. But even faith and endurance had their limits.
Hutch turned strained eyes searchingly toward his partner's empty face. "Starsk, I know this probably seems like hell right now, everything hurts and...and Gwen, and I don't blame you for wanting t'hide, but listen to me, partner. I can't lose you. I need you back, and so does your mom and your brother and a lot of other people. Don't do this. Come back and let me help, huh?"
Starsky sighed in his sleep but didn't stir. It was the most reaction Hutch had gotten all day, but it wasn't very encouraging; all he felt at the moment was profound, deep emptiness. The hole left by the absence of the person who lay next to him, hand lifelessly in his own.
He'd sat a similar vigil once before, talking his unconscious friend back to him, helping him find the way, but it hadn't been quite like this. Then, he'd sensed Starsky's struggle, the fight for life in a body that was nearly sapped of strength, and Hutch had somehow shared his own. This time there was no battle being fought, no one listening from the other side as far as he could tell, only that chilling emptiness. Like everything that was his friend was pulled way down deep where nothing could hurt it or touch it, or even coax it back.
But there had always been...something, some bridge between them. It hadn't been words or touch--something far less tangible and far more solid than that. And it was that connection he now poured out all his love and worry and hope into, hoping some of it would reach his partner, wherever he was.
Time crept on. Hutch talked, patted, stroked, and cradled as he tried to cajole the brunet into response. And in his heart he mourned, despairing far inside where he hid it from everyone, even Starsky. Especially Starsky.
But as day rolled irrevocably into night, the coaxing turned into pleading. Shared feelings and memories had turned into fears and worries, and as the doctors' faces grew longer at the unexplained continued unconsciousness, dread filled in the emptiness inside him.
If anything, though, his words became more gentle. The fear was more for Starsky than for himself, and this was the only way back for his partner, Hutch was sure of it: laying a clear path home, a trail marked out in concern and love.
"Starsk, come on, open your eyes for me, huh? I promised I'm not going anywhere, but you have to come back then. You're not alone, believe me. Please, pal, do it for me, wouldya?"
It was just the kind of plea that would work. Starsky had bled for him, killed for him, sacrificed his last chance for survival before for him. His partner could work miracles out of his loyalty. Maybe it was selfish, but Hutch wasn't above taking advantage of that to get Starsky back now.
He kneaded the fingers that had cramped around his own. His own were thinner, finer; "musician's hands," his mother had said more than once. But Starsky's calloused fingers and worn hands belied their gentleness when Hutch was sick or hurting, their capability in tying delicate model ships or tinkering with car engines. They were the hands of somebody who wasn't afraid to work or get dirty. And yet they never felt rough. Not for Hutch.
He sighed. Hospital vigils always made him moody, seeing significance in every observation, every reaction. Or lack of.
Hutch nudged the dark curls out of his partner's face again, then rubbed carefully along the discolored jawline. "Usually can't get you to shut up, and now I can't get you to talk. Do you always do the opposite of what I say just to annoy me?" he asked with a snort of unreal amusement. "I could sure use you back, Starsk. I'm gettin' a little lost here without ya."
His eyes grew unfocused, seeing something else at the thoughts his own words provoked in him. "You remember when I was trapped under my car a few months ago?" Another bark of humorless laughter. "'Course you do. You had more nightmares after that than I did. But you know what kept me going, what made me hold out until you got there?"
If he'd been expecting an answer, he was disappointed, but he hadn't been. And still he was disappointed.
"It was you. Knowing you were coming, sooner or later. It was worth holding on because I knew you were out there looking and I couldn't give up on you." Although he'd never been more tempted in his whole life. The excruciating pain of the car crushing his trapped leg had been slight compared to the utter aloneness and helplessness. The addition of hopelessness would have been unbearable, but he'd never lost hope, not even when his own attempts to free himself had failed and all he could do was wait for rescue. Because he knew there was a rescuer. The hand idly cradling Starsky's jaw slid back to the nape of his neck again to massage gently. "Well, I'm here for you now. You're not alone anymore, Starsk. Come back, please, buddy. Don't give up. Don't give up on me. Trust me, please."
He kept the coaxing up late into the night. But when he finally grew too weary to talk and dozed off into troubled sleep on the edge of the bed once more, it was with the knowledge of his apparent lack of progress.
His hand hurt. It felt like it was being crushed, and the jolt of suddenly recognized pain brought him around all at once. Hutch blinked in confusion at his no-longer-numb right hand.
The fingers entwined with his own had clenched so tight, both sets were white.
Shock of realization snapped his head up, his eyes connecting straightaway with the dark ones that blinked at him.
Blinking back tears.
The pain in them would've been obvious to a stranger, but to Hutch it was intimate, like his own. His throat constricted in sympathy. "Starsk?" he whispered.
"Hutch... Gwen...?" Only a raspy shadow of a voice, but strong with despair.
Hutch gently shook his head. "I'm sorry, buddy."
He had leaned forward, their foreheads touching and his free hand resting once more on the dark hair, beginning to glide over the curls in an attempt to soothe. He kept stroking as the tears began to fall, dampening the pillow against his face, and the blanketed shoulder shook.
"Shh, it's gonna be okay. I promise, it's gonna get better, Starsk. I won't let go."
And when the words ran out, like they always did, he kept his promise by just holding on tight. Starsky had come back home, and Hutch was there, waiting for him.
Written in 1999