This story first appeared in the zine, That's What Friends Are For #8 (1998). This zine and other fine S&H gen zines can be obtained from the editor at: Intertwined@webtv.net Comments on this story can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org and will be forwarded to the author.
The Nature of Sacrifice
K Hanna Korossy
As the man in blue passed down the corridor of the train, Hutch restrained himself from asking the conductor one more time how much closer they were to Apple Creek. After a half-dozen times or so, the railroad man had started to get huffy. "Soon," was the only curt response now. It sure didn't seem like soon to Hutch.
The detective forced himself to sit back in the seat and watch the passing scenery, what little bit of it there was. The desert was something that normally he'd have enjoyed immensely, only now his preoccupations made him nearly oblivious to the passing sights. The only thing that mattered was that maybe Starsky was in trouble.
Neither of them were ever keen on working apart, even if one was temporarily incapacitated. Which, in their line of work, happened all-too-frequently. Normally, procedure was to pair a temporarily partnerless detective with another for the duration, but Captain Dobey had quickly learned that reassigning a certain pair of his men was more trouble than it was worth. Hutch became cold and distant with any unfortunate enough to try and take Starsky's place, and Starsky provoked and pushed them until an inevitable confrontation occurred. The two were experienced detectives, though, and cautious when they were soloing, so Dobey finally let them be.
Which was how it'd all started.
Starsky had been coming over every afternoon with case files for them to sort through together, Hutch usually dozing off at some point. Starsky had ended up putting him to bed more than once that week. The withdrawal had been over for days with only a little residual irritability and sickness remaining, but Hutch still felt exhausted and drained. Dobey had told him frankly to not even try coming in for the first week, and Hutch had been grateful for the time to try to put the ordeal behind him. The tracks and scars and memories were all fading, but not the dread. He wasn't sure it ever would. Starsky sticking close helped him deal with it, though, and he appreciated the chance to ease his way back into work. His one complaint was that he wasn't sanguine about his partner working alone, and certainly not going after a felon by himself.
It had actually been simple, originally. Starsky had been working on a case for a week when word came that his lead suspect had skipped town. With no official warrant issued yet, Starsky had decided the best thing would be to go after the guy himself, and Dobey had reluctantly concurred.
It didn't help that Starsky wasn't feeling well, fighting some bug, and Hutch didn't think he should be going anywhere, let alone into unfamiliar territory without back-up after a dangerous felon. Dobey had tried to talk to Hutch about it only to find himself at the receiving end of a temper that even he couldn't match. But in the end, it had been Starsky's expression that had convinced him when no argument could. Hutch hadn't said another word.
Then Starsky disappeared.
After two days, Hutch had been nearly ready to take off when Dobey stopped by. Starsky had promised he wouldn't stay longer than a day and that he'd keep his partner informed, but after his initial check-in, neither the captain nor Hutch had heard another word. Calls to the local sheriff's department were singularly unhelpful. Dobey was getting worried. Hutch had already passed worry the day before and was rapidly approaching fear. Despite the captain's halfhearted protests, Hutch was on the train two hours later.
Now all he could do was wait... and think. Before he'd left, Dobey had seriously asked him if he was ready, and Hutch had sounded confident, said all the right things, maybe even fooled himself. But now, alone and with nothing else to do but reconsider, doubts had set in again. His life had changed in the past two weeks. His confidence; his sense of self-worth; his belief in himself, his abilities, his usefulness-all the things he'd taken for granted, were now shaky and vague. When it came down to it, Hutch was neither certain he could find his partner nor that he could handle any trouble that he'd probably come across. All he knew for sure was that he had to try. Not because he was a cop, or because Dobey had wanted him to, or even to see if he could do it. This one was solely for Starsky.
The conductor's call galvanized Hutch. He scrambled up from the seat, refusing to grimace as still-weary muscles complained of the long inactivity, and hurried down the narrow aisle, clutching his one duffel bag packed with his and his partner's things. Just in case.
The train station gave some idea of the size of the town. It consisted of a small platform with room enough for one bench and an adjoining tiny building that contained only a ticket booth and a half-dozen chairs, and even then seemed crowded. Hutch crossed the small room in three strides, noting that no one else had even gotten off the train with him.
The building's front door opened out to a small paved street that, as Hutch looked up the length of it, he realized with surprise was the main street. It was lined with a few stores and buildings on both sides, which seemed to be the only substantial structures in the area. Behind the buildings, long dirt roads stretched as far as the eye could see, dotted with occasional farm houses. It was straight out of Norman Rockwell and about as far as you could get from L.A. Hutch felt like a fish out of water. Bet Starsk was completely lost...
The thought got him moving. Tightening his grip on his bag, he set off down the street.
As he walked towards the heart of town, he was surprised to encounter more people than he expected in such an apparently small town. They all smiled at him, many greeting him. Hutch, amused, nodded back. A far cry from L.A., indeed. A friendly looking woman with a small child in tow willingly gave him the directions he sought, and a minute later, Hutch arrived in front of the door of a small, neat white building with the word "Sheriff" stenciled on the sign next to the door. He braced himself, then walked in.
The room was nearly filled with a desk, chair, a gunrack, and, Hutch almost smiled, a pot-bellied stove. He took it in in a glance, then his gaze went to behind the desk. The sheriff wasn't much older than the blond, though thinning red hair and a few extra pounds gave a different first impression. His face was round and open, almost naively so. He was working on something when the detective came in but hastily shoved it in a drawer.
"What can I do for you, mister?" The voice held a touch of Texas twang.
"I'm Detective Hutchinson, LAPD," Hutch said flatly, briefly flipping open his ID.
"Sheriff Dalton," the other man nodded slowly.
"Sheriff. My partner, Detective Starsky, was here a few days ago, looking for leads on a suspect in a case he-we were working on. We haven't heard from him since..." He was going to go on, but the look on the sheriff's face warned him something was wrong.
"Well, sir, uh, I didn't know he was a detective. I mean, he said he was, but he didn't have no ID on him and you can't always believe-"
Hutch cut off his dissembling with an abrupt motion. "You know where my partner is?" he demanded quietly.
"Yessir, he's in the cell," the man jerked a finger over his shoulder. "Been there since day before yesterday. Sally Snyder filed charges against him for assault and-"
"What?!" Hutch's eyes, drawn to the wall behind the man's back, now returned to pin the squirming lawman. "Assault! Did he get his phone call?"
"Now look, Dee-tective, when some stranger attacks one of our own, ain't got no ID, nothin' on him, he don't exactly get the royal treatment around here," the man said defensively.
"I want to see him now." Hutch's tone could've cut through steel. The sheriff didn't try it. He cringed at the smoldering eyes, opening a drawer to fish out a ring of keys. He paused to glance pointedly at Hutch's holster as he stood up, but the blond completely ignored him, and the sheriff apparently decided not to press his luck. The older man led the way to the door to the back, Hutch following right behind.
The first thing he noticed upon going through the door was the sound of coughing. Wracking coughs, one after the other, noisily breaking the otherwise quiet of the cellblock. Hutch's heart sank when the sheriff moved to one side and he could see where it was coming from. The face was hidden, but the form was unquestionably familiar.
The sheriff, feeling the barely controlled anger of the man next to him, didn't look up, only hastened forward to unlock the door of the cell and then stood back as far out of the way as possible. Hutch didn't spare him a glance as he stormed inside.
Upon reaching the cot that stretched along the far wall, he dropped his bag and knelt down beside it, the anger melting off at once. Gently, he reached out to pull back the blanket that was bundled around the figure in the bed. "Starsk?"
Dark, tired eyes opened in surprise to stare at him. Starsky opened his mouth to speak but began to cough again instead, his whole body spasming until he regained control and lay quiet, watching Hutch. A rueful grin curled his mouth and a hot hand closed around the blond's wrist in silent response.
Hutch smiled back sympathetically. "Okay, partner, take it easy. I'll handle this." As he looked up, the smile meant only for the other vanished under hardness. "This man is sick," he spat out at the sheriff, "didn't you notice?"
Dalton shifted. "Lotsa guys end up in here cough like that and don't want t'eat nothin'. Usually on something, or drunk. Fact is, we've had some a lot sicker than he is."
Hutch surged to his feet, no longer trying to restrain his temper. "He's a cop. He didn't assault anybody, he's not on anything, and he wasn't drunk when you arrested him. He's been sick and alone in here for over two days, sounding like this, and you just left him here!" He was in the sheriff's face now, voice more clipped and deadly with each word. The country lawman had paled and shrunk from the piercing gaze. "I'm taking him out of here now, and you're going to help me."
"Well, I guess I could release him to your custody-"
"You do that. Then you get his car and bring it around to..." Hutch glanced around, eyes lighting on the door to one side. "... to the back here. And then you tell me where I can find a doctor and a place to stay for the night."
The sheriff's mouth twitched a tiny bit in protest, but he didn't say a word, hurrying back out to the front office.
Hutch watched the hasty retreat only long enough to make sure he was being obeyed, then turned back toward the cot as another fit of coughing struck. He was beside the bed in two steps and, after a moment of helplessness, rested one hand on the heaving back and felt the flushed cheeks with the other. The fever didn't seem dangerously high to him, but it was high enough, and together with the cough and no treatment or food, had obviously left Starsky totally depleted.
Hutch waited until the coughing died down again and, after a moment, the glazed eyes reopened. "Hey," he said quietly, "the car's right outside. I'm gonna get you out of here, okay?" he began to slip an arm under the other's knees.
"Uh-uh," Starsky whispered, "I can do it."
Hutch hesitated, every instinct resisting the idea. But he understood. "All right," he agreed, "but let me help."
That offer was silently accepted, and together they somehow got Starsky on his feet. Hutch paused for a moment to bundle the blanket around shivering shoulders and gather his own strength, then reached an arm around the other's waist. He found he was all but propping up his friend, sheer determination more than anything keeping the other upright and moving. He guided them both slowly out of the cell and over to the side door, then out to find, to his relief, the Torino standing nearby, motor running.
The colder outside air set off Starsky's cough again, and Hutch quickened his steps before the other lost what little strength he had and folded on the spot. "Just a little bit more, Starsk," Hutch muttered as he pulled his friend's arm up over his own shoulder and got them the last bit of distance over to the car. He gratefully settled his burden down into the passenger side seat, carefully leaning the lolling head back against the head rest. Starsky's eyes settled on him and a watered-down version of that stupid half-grin appeared, making Hutch snort. "Always gotta do it the hard way, don'tcha," he muttered fondly. One hand paused to briefly cup his friend's cheek, then he straightened and shut the door. He met Dalton on the other side of the car.
"Is there a motel close by?" he asked shortly.
"Anna Kelly's boarding house is down there," the sheriff sullenly pointed, his earlier reluctance returned. "Corner of Rider Street. Doc Carberry's just a little further-Anna'll know."
"Thank you for your help." Hutch's voice was dry as he got in the car, making the sheriff jump back in alarm when he spun the Torino around in a maneuver worthy of his partner and sped away. Dalton shook his head as he watched them drive off.
The boarding house was, indeed, just down the street, easily recognizable by the sign in the front yard, a cheerful-looking hanging placard that declared "Kelly's Boarding House." There was a long driveway that snaked around the side to the back, and Hutch, after pausing uncertainly for a moment, pulled into it. He found a small lot in the back with only three cars and as many empty spaces, and parked in one of the latter.
"Starsk," he turned to his passenger, lying silent and apparently asleep except for the coughing spells. Hutch's empathy grew as he watched his partner rouse himself and focus on him with difficulty. He lay a hand on Starsky's arm. "We're here. I'm gonna run inside and see if we can get us a room."
Starsky nodded wearily.
Hutch started to open the door, paused for a moment as he turned back. "Don't you go anywhere, okay?" he smiled.
He received a grin in return and, a little lightened, got out of the car.
There was a back door to the boardinghouse, and Hutch mounted the few steps to it to knock. He glanced back at the Torino tensely as he waited.
The response came quicker than he expected. Almost at once, a face appeared in the glass set in the door, then the lock rattled and the door opened to reveal a slight woman somewhere in her forties, with dark hair and eyes. She was dressed in a work dress and looked tired, but smiled warmly at Hutch. "Hello. You surprised me; most use the front door. Do you need a room?" There was a slight trace of some foreign accent in her voice.
"Uh, yes, ma'am," Hutch stumbled over his words. He caught himself. "But, uh, I have someone with me..."
The petite woman's face wrinkled apologetically. "I'm sorry, I don't have two rooms left." She brightened. "But I do have a room with a double bed if you don't mind sharing." Then, blushing, "Unless that is what you meant..."
Hutch relaxed a little, both at that problem solved and her delicacy. He smiled at her. "No ma'am, actually, that'd be just fine." He pulled his ID from his pocket and opened it for her. "You see, we're with the Los Angeles Police, and I and my partner," he nodded back toward the Torino, "need a place for a couple of nights. He's, uh, sick an' needs someplace to rest up before we go back-"
The woman glanced up from studying his badge, concern evident in her face. "Sick?" she cut in. "Well, you must not waste any time; bring him in." She stepped back and opened the door as widely as it would go.
Her sudden invitation caught Hutch off guard for a second, but he didn't need to be asked twice. He turned and hurried back to the car.
Crossing to the passenger side, he opened the door and knelt down beside the seat, reaching in to undo the seatbelt as he listened to the endless coughing. After he freed the latch, he sat back on his heels and gently lay his hand on the other's chest as he waited for the coughing to ease. Starsky finally grew quiet, slumped strengthlessly against the seat, pale and panting. Hutch didn't waste time arguing, merely laid Starsky's near arm over his shoulder and slid one arm behind his partner's neck, the other under his knees. "Got us a room," he said briefly. "Just relax." Without waiting for a response, he braced himself, then lifted the dead weight, grunting at the strain on his abused body. Shoving the cause of his weakness from his mind, he hurried toward the door.
The woman was waiting for him and as he staggered up the last step, she immediately turned and led the way down the hall. The hallway was long and Hutch was beginning to wonder how much longer he could go on when she abruptly stopped and opened a door on the right, stepping aside for Hutch. He hurried past her into the room.
The large bed to one side was the first thing he noticed, and he immediately headed for it, carefully laying his partner down with a relieved sigh. As he straightened, grimacing at a few twinges, he was surprised to find the woman right next to him, looking worriedly at Starsky.
"He doesn't look well at all," she shook her head. "Could I call Dr. Carberry for you? He's just down the street." She looked up to meet Hutch's eyes.
Everything seemed to be just down the street around here, Hutch silently speculated. But he was touched by the genuine concern in her eyes. He sat down on the edge of the bed and began unlacing the blue Adidas'. "Thank you, I'd appreciate that," he said. "And if you'd have some towels and a basin...?" he looked hopeful.
"Of course," she nodded, moving toward the door. "Towels are in the bathroom, to your left, extra blankets are in the trunk, and I'll bring some water in. Oh!" she exclaimed suddenly, stopping in the doorway. "I'm sorry, what manners. I'm Anna Kelly; I own this house."
Hutch smiled at her. "Ken Hutchinson. My partner's David Starsky."
She smiled and nodded, then pulled the door shut behind her.
The click of the lock was drowned out by harsh coughing from the bed. Hutch immediately turned back, discarding the shoes, and crossed to the bathroom to retrieve two towels. He placed them on the table next to the bed, then pulled a thick blanket out of the wooden chest that was at the foot of the bed. Having done all he could for the moment, he moved up to the front of the bed and watched silently, face taut, as Starsky gasped for air in between the relentless coughs.
...the pain slammed into him once more, and he couldn't control it, heaving again, trying to breathe in between the spasms. Bitter liquid filled his throat and he gagged on it, then he was throwing up long past there being anything left in him to purge...
The pleasant voice returned him back to the present with a jerk. "What?" he asked hoarsely, trying to sort the memory from the reality. Lively brown eyes peered at him closely.
"Are you all right?"
Hutch mentally shook himself. "Uh, yes. I'm sorry, I didn't hear you." He noticed the basin of water on the tray in her hand and stood up, reaching for it. "Thank you, I appreciate this."
She relinquished the tray to him, still looking at him thoughtfully. "Dr. Carberry is on his way. I brought some juice, too; it looks like you both could use it." She indicated a small pitcher on the tray he hadn't noticed before. "Are you sure there's nothing else I can do? You don't look very well yourself, Officer."
He smiled. "I'm fine, thank you."
She nodded, giving him a last look as she left the room. Hutch sighed and sank down on the edge of the bed, wearily pulling off his jacket and holstered gun, sticking the latter in the drawer of the nightstand next to the bed.
Startled, he turned to meet feverish blue eyes that were looking at him with the same worry Mrs. Kelly had. Except these were filled with affection.
"I'll be okay. Lie down. Y'look beat." Starsky ran out of air on each phrase, interspersing them with breaths, which started him coughing. He curled up as he struggled to stop.
Hutch, silently suffering along, leaned over Starsky to talk in his ear in even, calming tones. "Easy, partner, take it easy. Don't fight it." He smoothed back sweaty curls as Starsky went limp again. "I'm okay, Starsk, we just gotta get you better. Don't worry about me, don't talk, don't do anything, just let me handle things, okay? I want to," he added even more softly.
Starsky opened his eyes and watched him for a long moment.
A knock at the door didn't break the silent exchange. Hutch finally nodded and Starsky's eyes shut again as his partner rose to answer the door.
Dr. Carberry was nothing like Hutch expected. Visions of the kindly old town doctor disappeared at the sight of the young man who couldn't have seen 30 yet, with thin-framed glasses and a shock of red hair. Despite his unsettling youth, his smile was warm and calming, and Hutch immediately found himself liking the young man.
"Officer Hutchinson? I'm Dr. Eric Carberry. Anna says you have an emergency for me...?"
"Dr. Carberry, thank you for coming." Hutch shook the offered hand, the grip firm and steady. He felt himself relax a little for the first time since he'd reached town. The introductions finished, he ushered the doctor in, outlining the situation in a few brief words minus the jail part.
As he talked, Carberry began his examination, giving an occasional "uh-huh" as Hutch spoke. The detective moved to the end of the bed to watch, hands unconsciously clenched around the heavy brass bedframe, twisting when Starsky began viciously coughing again. Carberry pulled out a stethoscope and listened for a moment as the coughing jag went on, reaching to turn Starsky onto his side so he could listen to the patient's back.
Hutch leapt to help, relieved to be able to do something, and sat down at the head of the bed to pull Starsky up against him as the doctor completed the exam. Starsky was barely responding to the doctor's words or actions now, lying limp in Hutch's arms, and the blond was beginning to get anxious. "Doc?" he finally asked as Carberry stood, folding his stethoscope into his bag.
Carberry looked at him thoughtfully. "Well, it looks as though Detective Starsky has a bad case of bronchitis. It probably started out as just the flu but, left untreated, developed into something more serious." At Hutch's worried look, he quickly added, "Not that there's cause for concern. Bronchitis responds well to treatment. Antibiotics should knock out the worst of it within a few days. In the meantime," he glanced at his patient, "it is severe enough that he's having trouble breathing. I can prescribe him a syrup that'll help control the coughing some, but the best thing is to keep him partly raised like that," he indicated Starsky's position, resting against the blond's chest. "Try and keep the air in the room moist, get him to drink as much as possible, juice or water, and keep him as still and quiet as you can. Do you have any questions?"
Hutch's mind was reeling. He had a hundred of them, his training sorting out the few most important. "He doesn't need a hospital?" he asked hopefully.
Carberry frowned. "He will need care for the next few days, but I assumed-"
Hutch nodded impatiently; he hadn't meant that. The brunet had gotten a lot worse in the past half-hour, enough that Hutch was beginning to regret he'd not immediately headed straight for the nearest hospital. "I will. But is he getting enough air like this?" his eyes fell worriedly to his friend's flushed face. He pulled Starsky protectively closer as he listened to his friend's labored breathing.
The doctor nodded. "He's okay right now. A little distressed, but that should ease up with the medication. If it gets worse, though, let me know right away. I'll be back every few hours to check on him." His evaluating gaze swung up to Hutch. "How about you, are you feeling all right?"
Hutch felt himself flush. The visible scars on his face were gone, but the circles around his eyes and thin cheeks were still-present reminders of the recent weeks. "I'm fine," he said shortly. He had no patience to worry about himself now.
Carberry appeared to accept his answer. "Okay. Ask Anna to give me a call if you need me, otherwise I'll be back..." he consulted his watch, "...this evening around nine or so." He paused, face softening with compassion. "He'll be fine, don't worry. Fever and heavy coughing are just very draining. He's going to be exhausted and out of it for a while. Keep him as comfortable and relaxed as possible and he'll start improving soon." He clapped Hutch on the shoulder. "Okay?"
Hutch nodded, his anxiety ebbing. It'll be okay, we just have to ride it out. Déja vu. "Thank you, doctor."
The man grinned, making him look ten years younger, and left.
Hutch took a deep breath; apparently they were in for the long haul. He just wished he felt more up to the task.
Starsky suddenly stirred in half-sleep, one hand rising to grasp Hutch's sleeve. He mumbled something and began to cough. Hutch instantly settled him higher up on his shoulder, trying to make his partner's breathing easier, and the other responded by nestling against him, seeming more comfortable than before, his respiration deepening and steadying a little. Hutch was a little shocked at how unabashedly, instinctively he had reacted to Starsky's trust and felt a rush of warmth at the obvious faith the other had in him. He'd never seen his tough partner, always strong and in control, so vulnerable before, unashamedly. Ill and completely unguarded, Starsky trusted him not only for physical care, but also for emotional. It was humbling to be loved like that, to have someone so totally dependent on him; no one had trusted him so in a long time. He suddenly wondered if that was how Starsky had felt, too, those long hellish hours up in Huggy's apartment...
Starsky succumbed to another coughing spell, drawing Hutch out of his thoughts. "Easy, Starsk. Take it easy," he murmured, slowly disentangling himself from the other and laying him back down. "Gotta get you settled here, partner."
The flushed face drew together, a hand weakly groping for the lost contact. Hutch intercepted it, squeezing lightly. "It's okay, I'm not leaving," he soothed, sitting on the edge of the bed. One-handedly, he wet and wrung out a washcloth, patting it first against the hollow of the other's neck and the hot cheeks before re-wetting it and placing it on Starsky's forehead. Then he gently freed his hand and efficiently stripped the other of the several days-old clothes, dipping into his bag for clean underthings. That done, Hutch tiredly pulled up the covers and crossed the room to the phone on the dresser to make a quick call to Dobey. The captain was understandably worried, but with Hutch's assurances that Starsky was in no danger and that he could handle things down there, Dobey left affairs to his judgment. Finally finished, Hutch settled on the edge of the bed again. The knock at the door nearly made him jump. "Yes?" he said softly.
The door opened a few inches to reveal Anna Kelly. "Officer, may I come in? I brought you dinner."
Hutch found himself smiling in response as he got up to cross to the door. "Thank you," he took the tray from her gratefully. A steaming bowl of soup sat to one side and a covered plate was in the middle.
"Chicken and dumplings, and vegetable soup. I hope you like it," she smiled.
"It smells wonderful," Hutch set the tray on the nearby dresser.
Anna stepped further into the room, looking closely at Starsky. "Did Eric say what was wrong with your friend?" she asked carefully.
Hutch sobered. "Bronchitis. He'll be all right, but we may have to rely on your hospitality for a few days while he gets better."
Anna turned to look at him. "Seems as though you could use some looking after yourself," she offered gently.
The thought was a little too close to the truth. Hutch looked down at the floor. "Thank you, but I'll be okay." He looked up into compassionate brown eyes, suddenly struck at how much they reminded him of another pair of caring eyes.
Anna smiled at him again. "I know; you are with your friend. But I would be happy to help if you would like." She quickly spoke again before a suspiciously pink-cheeked Hutch could respond. "Oh, I nearly forgot. Eric sent over these just a few minutes ago." She pulled a bottle and a small vial out of her apron pocket. "The syrup is two spoonfuls every two hours, and the pills are one twice a day." She patted his hand as she gave him the containers. "God be with thee both." Then she turned and hurried out the door.
Hutch stared after her in surprise. So that was where the accent came from. After the things he so often saw on the job, sometimes it surprised him to find how much good there was left in the world. Turning back to the bed at the sound of hoarse coughs, he dropped the bottles onto the nightstand and once more began his ministrations.
Carberry arrived two hours later to find Hutch worried and anxious. The blond set out several wet towels to humidify the room, administered both medicines, and roused Starsky enough to have him drink some juice, finally settling him back half-sitting against a pile of pillows. Starsky seemed to be worsening instead of improving, though. The coughing sometimes went on now for several minutes at a time, leaving him gasping and spent. Hutch didn't know which of them was more scared.
The doctor finally looked up at Hutch as he finished his quick check. "Detective, I'm afraid he might have a worse spell or two like this before he's going to get better. There's nothing to be alarmed about; these things sometimes just get worse before they get better. He's still getting enough air and as long as he remains under supervision, there's not much else to be done but ride it out." He studied his patient thoughtfully. "Since he is semi-lucid, I'd say talk to him, try to keep him reassured and calm. If he panics, he'll just make it a lot harder for himself to breathe."
Hutch's frayed temper finally broke. He carefully got up off the bed and strode up to the doctor. "Of course he's panicking! Wouldn't you be if you couldn't breathe?!"
Carberry stood his ground. "He's getting enough air, it just doesn't feel like it to him sometimes. Add to that that he's in an unfamiliar place and not really understanding what's going on, and it's terrifying. He's reacting only from instinct at the moment, but he knows you're here and he trusts you. That's why I don't want to send him to a hospital; it'd be taking away the one thing he has going for him right now. You keep him calm, and being calm helps him breathe easier and rest so he can heal."
Hutch's anger extinguished almost at once. He closed his eyes and shook his head; his depleted reserves were keeping him from thinking straight. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean that like it sounded." Starsky's harsh coughing drew his attention and he glanced back at his partner before looking at Carberry remorsefully.
The young doctor smiled at him with understanding. "It's okay, I know it's hard. It won't last long, though. Just hang on for another day or two."
A day or two. A day or two could last forever, Hutch knew, but he nodded. He would hang in there just as he had a week before, and for the same reason as then. Because he had to. Because of Starsky.
The doctor packed up his things and took his leave with a few final words of advice. Hutch saw him out and also said his good-nights to Anna, waiting at the door for news. She clucked when she saw how little he'd eaten of the dinner, but he couldn't tell her that food didn't always stay down yet.
Settled in for the night, Hutch walked back and stood by the side of the bed, staring at the forlornly curled figure in it. Long-buried tenderness stirred in him at the sight. Lying there, hurting, cheeks fever-reddened and hair tousled and wet with perspiration, Starsky awoke every protective response in Hutch. Was this really the man who, a short week ago, had been Hutch's rock, babying him, caring for him, saving him? Doing for him what no man should need done and seeing him as no one should be seen? Somehow, the memory didn't feel so shameful now. Starsky completely trusting himself at his worst to his partner only showed the depth of his faith in Hutch.
Starsky began to cough again, jarringly, and the movement sunk him further down into the pillows. That was no good, Hutch noted; his breathing was already worsening. He gently gathered his partner to him, reaching behind him to arrange the pillows just right, then settled Starsky into a more upright position than before. Starsky frowned in half-sleep, but Hutch quickly soaked the washcloth again and laid it on the hot forehead, stroking damp curls out of the way as he did. "Shh, go back to sleep. I'm here," he soothed. The flushed face relaxed.
Hutch stayed a minute longer until he was sure the other was deeply under, then wearily stripped down to his shorts and climbed under the covers on the other side of the big bed, careful to jostle it as little as possible. Starsky slept on, motionless and quiet except for slightly labored breathing. Hutch curled up next to him and let himself slip off into exhausted sleep.
The nightmare was like the others, shapeless, vague. Snatches of Monk's and Forest's voices, darkness, running. There were few concrete memories to draw on, only the still-unmistakably clear panic and mortification. Mindless, formless, suffocating terror that seemed to threaten his sanity, and, on its heels, the bitter shame of having his soul stripped naked, of completely losing control. He fought to escape it, but there was no place to run...
"Hutch." Hot fingers brushed against his face. He wanted to hide from them and their caring. Can't see me like this...
"Hutch!" The hissed voice was more insistent, a hand tugging at the arm he'd buried his face in. Slowly, the nightmare shrouds lightened and faded away. He blinked up into the bright eyes that were watching him, shining with more than just fever. "S'okay, just a bad dream."
Just... Hutch swallowed, shutting his eyes as he nodded. Yeah, a bad dream that he couldn't seem to wake up from. He shoved the thought aside as he pushed up to study the other. "How you feeling?" he asked softly.
Starsky shrugged and yawned. "Tired." The effort to talk started another coughing fit. Hutch scrambled up on his knees and leaned his partner forward against him until the attack eased and Starsky was panting against his shoulder.
Since they were both up, he helped Starsky to the bathroom, wincing as the movement started endless hacking, weakening Starsky with each step. Hutch was glad to get the other back in bed, holding him until the coughing and breathing eased. The subdued "thanks" against his chest made him shake his head.
"Shh, don't talk, it'll just aggravate it." He reached up to rub the nape of the neck below the dark curls, looking at the bedside clock as he did. Even in the semi-darkness he could see the numbers: 3:39. He felt like he hadn't slept at all. He continued massaging until he felt Starsky grow heavier against him, then eased him back down on the bed. Hutch climbed back over to his side but lay with his eyes open for a long time, listening to the other breathe. He finally put a hand over the heated one next to his and, absurdly comforted, fell back to sleep.
Morning sunlight in his face woke him up gradually. He lay groggily blinking at it, wondering where he was for a moment. The disorientation panicked him briefly, until the dark curls next to him brought back the last few days. Apple Creek, Starsky's illness... no Forest. Drawing a deep breath, he got up as gingerly as he could.
He paused a moment by Starsky's side of the bed, risking a quick touch of the reddened cheeks. The fever seemed to have gone down a little. He still hadn't had a chance to ask his partner what was going on, but Hutch was too relieved that he was getting some rest to mind very much. He picked up the dry washcloth that had slipped to the floor sometime during the night and stopped to re-wet the towels draped around the room before he headed into the bathroom.
Fifteen minutes later, feeling more refreshed than he could remember for a long time, he stopped once more by the bed to retrieve his gun and to check on Starsky. Other than an occasional cough in his sleep, his partner seemed to be resting easily. Relieved, Hutch snuck out of the room.
Down the hall by the dining room, he finally found Anna Kelly just serving breakfast. Upon seeing him, her face lit up and she glided over to speak to him.
"Officer Hutchinson! Thee are looking better this morning! Did thee both sleep well?"
He smiled at her. "Yes, thank you. I think my partner's getting better."
Anna's eyes shone. "I'm so glad," she said earnestly. "Now thee must eat a big breakfast, come," she took his arm, accepting no protest, and led him to the big dining table.
The food did look good, and Hutch was surprised at how much of an appetite he found. He had several helpings of the eggs and sausage and pancakes at Anna's repeated urgings; it seemed as though she'd made it her mission to look after him. Wistfully, he thought for a moment of his own mother and the big Saturday meals the family had together.
There were only two other guests at the dining room table; the rest had apparently finished before Hutch arrived. He looked them over casually out of habit, but the older woman and teenage boy neither seemed of interest nor interested in him. There was no conversation except for Anna Kelly's cheery appearances with more food.
After Hutch felt he couldn't possibly eat another bite, he left the table and went looking for Anna, finding her in the hall. "Ms. Kelly-" he began.
She smiled. "It's Mrs. Kelly, though my Peter, God rest him, is no longer with me. But thee must call me Anna." The whole was said without a trace of self-pity.
"Only if you call me Ken," he returned her smile. "You're Quaker, aren't you?"
Anna smiled again. "Some call us that. I am a member of the Society of Friends."
"That's why the 'thee's'..."
She nodded, coloring a little. "The familiar is used with friends."
"Oh." Hutch was touched. "Thank you. I like it." He smiled again, paused. "Anna, I have a favor to ask of you."
"Of course," she said at once, folding her hands in front of her.
"I have to go out for a little bit, police business. Starsky's sleeping, but would you be able to keep an eye on him? I... I just don't want him waking up alone."
"Surely," Anna beamed at him. "I'd be happy to. Will thee back before lunchtime?"
"Oh, sure," Hutch quickly answered, "I just have to go see two people. I'll try not to be long." He had no intention of staying away a moment longer than he needed to. He doubted he'd have even been able to make himself go except he was confident he was leaving Starsky in good hands. "Thank you," he added again warmly.
"Thee mustn't worry about a thing," she patted his arm, walking him to the door. "Just see to thy business. I've nursed a soul or two in my time," she added cheerfully.
Hutch nodded, casting a last glance down the hall as though he could see into his room, then walked out the door.
His first stop was the sheriff's office. Hutch pulled the Torino up in front of the building, staring at it for a moment as he braced himself, shelving his anger. He got out of the car and strode up the steps.
Dalton looked up as the door opened, his face darkening at the sight of Hutch. The dislike was completely mutual.
"Sheriff," Hutch nodded coolly.
"Officer," the sheriff allowed in return.
"I'd like to know about the charges against my partner."
Dalton leaned back in his chair. "Assault and attempted rape," he said flatly.
Hutch felt himself flush again but quelled his anger. That wouldn't help here. "Of whom?" he asked evenly.
The sheriff narrowed his eyes at him. "Now, you wouldn't have any ideas 'bout goin' over there and tryin' somehow to change the young lady's mind, wouldya?" he drawled.
Oddly, the jibe against Hutch didn't bother him so much as the inferences against his partner. "Sheriff, as the detective working on a case that might be related to these charges, I have a right to the details of said charges." His calm voice betrayed no emotion.
Dalton squinted at him unhappily for a moment before reluctantly opening a desk drawer and pulling out a file. He opened it and, after reading a moment, said, "Sally says she was comin' home from her job, about 6 pm, when Mr. Starsky," Hutch ignored his accent on the word, "accosted her, dragged her into a nearby alley, and assaulted her. She managed to escape from him before he was able to fulfill all his intentions, though." The sheriff raised an eyebrow at Hutch.
The detective's face could have been carved from stone. "Where can I find this... Sally?" he said.
The sheriff didn't seem pleased by the question but offered no protest. He didn't need to consult his folder again to answer. "Sally Snyder lives at 32 Amberson. That's-" he began to point.
"I know, just down the street," Hutch finished. He put on a fake, polite smile. "Thank you, Sheriff, you've been very helpful."
Dalton grimaced as Hutch spun and walked out the door.
Amberson was, indeed, just down the street. Hutch only had to drive a few blocks before he saw the street sign to his right and turned up a small, neat side street. None of the houses were large or fancy, but most showed care and attention. Number 32 was an exception. Hutch glanced over the peeling paint and unkempt lawn as he waded through the high grass up to the front door. The signs were not promising.
His first knock went unanswered. He was beginning to think there was no one home after the second knock also brought no response, and was just about to turn away when the lock on the door rattled.
The girl who answered the door could've been anywhere from 15 to 30. Her blond hair was mussed and her face had the tired look of someone who usually wore a lot of make-up. A dark bruise on her cheek was all the color in it. She squinted at him, pulling her robe more tightly around her. Hutch had no doubt he'd woken her up, but whether she was hungover or just very sleepy, he wasn't sure. "Whaddaya want?" she slurred.
"Good morning, Ms. Snyder," he pulled out his ID. "I'm sorry to wake you, but I have a few questions about the assault charges you filed."
The girl's face suddenly filled with suspicion. Not unease or embarrassment, Hutch noted. "What about it?" she asked sullenly.
"Could you tell me what happened?"
She frowned. "I was walkin' by the drugstore, mindin' my own business, and this creep jumped me, dragged me int' the alley."
"By force?" Hutch politely interjected.
"Yeah," the girl warmed to her outrage. "He was stronger'n me. He hit me," she gestured to her cheek, "then he said he wanted ta... y'know." No shame colored her face, only anger.
"Did you scream, try to get away?" Hutch asked quietly. The whole thing seemed slightly unreal, but he dutifully made notes on everything she said.
"Sure, but he, uh, covered my mouth. Then I kicked him, and he let go long enough for me t'run away. I was lucky," she ended triumphantly.
"Then you went and reported it to the sheriff," Hutch finished.
"Uh-huh," she nodded.
"Had you seen your assailant before the attack?"
"My what?" she looked confused.
"Your attacker," Hutch patiently clarified.
"Oh. Uh-uh. Guess it's just some pervert who drifted int' town."
The slur hurt, despite its source. "That 'pervert' you're accusing, Ms., happens to be an L.A. homicide detective," he said stiffly, his fingers tightening around the notebook in his hand.
She smirked at him. "Guess they should screen you boys better, then," she said airily, then pulled back to shut the door. "Bye-bye, Officer."
Hutch stared at the closed door for a moment, jaw clenched, before his anger evaporated. Well, at least he knew. Not that he'd ever had doubts about Starsky, but it was clear now that Sally Snyder was making the whole thing up out of some motive of her own. He wondered briefly if the girl was crazy, but discarded the idea. No, not crazy, but not too bright, either. What was she gaining from all this? He dwelt on that possibility on the short trip back to the boarding house.
Hutch was still thinking about Sally as he came in through the back door and walked down the hall toward his room. She was hiding something, and he wanted to know why. Starsky had only been in town a few hours at that point; what could he have done so quickly to turn her against him like that? And what about the missing ID and, Hutch thought uncomfortably, Starsky's gun? Why hadn't Starsky had them at the time of his arrest? Hutch realized abruptly that this was his first real case in two weeks, and it felt good to be doing his job again. Maybe something in his life still worked, anyway.
The raucous coughing struck his ears suddenly, faint but continuous. His head snapped up and he doubled his pace, Sally forgotten as he strode through the door to their room without slowing.
Anna sat on the edge of the bed, trying to both restrain and support Starsky, who seemed to be struggling to rise. Except every effort produced a new attack of coughing, leaving him leaning heavily on the slight woman. Hutch absorbed the situation in a glance and took over.
"Anna, could you get me some more juice, please?" he asked, taking her place at the side of the bed and relieving her of her burden.
"I think his fever has gone up, Ken. He kept trying to get out of bed-it was all I could do to keep him still...," she stood.
Hutch nodded, distracted. He didn't hear her leave the room as he awkwardly undid his gun and shoved it out of sight, then focused on the occupant of the bed.
"Easy, Starsk," he tried, "you've gotta take it easy." Useless words. He tried again. "C'mon, don't fight me, partner." Starsky was almost doubled up, oblivious to him. Hutch patted the dark curls, rubbed a tensed shoulder, anything to make his presence known. "Let me take care of things, huh? Easy, easy now." He gently restrained the other's struggles, pulling him into a careful embrace. "Listen to me, Starsk, listen to my voice," he said, dropping it to a soft, relaxing cadence. "Don't try to breathe deep, just take little breaths. Slow, easy breaths. Relax. Let yourself breathe." Was it his imagination, or was he getting through a little bit? Either that or Starsky's strength was gone.
The dark head lolled and glassy blue eyes finally opened halfway to stare at him without apparent comprehension.
"Hey, Starsk, you in there?" Hutch leaned back to see them clearly, voice tender with concern.
Something seemed to connect. Starsky wasn't straining against him anymore, and his mouth opened on a soundless word before he folded against Hutch in another fit of coughing.
Hutch sighed as he pulled his friend close. "Yeah, partner, it's me. I'm here now." He turned Starsky's head so he could get air easier and rubbed the heaving back until the coughing released its hold. "That's good, pal, relax. You're doin' fine. I got ya," he crooned. The rigor left Starsky's muscles and he slumped against Hutch, nearly unconscious from exhaustion and lack of oxygen. "Shh," Hutch continued to soothe, cradling the limp figure and swaying back and forth. Not for the first time, he felt at a loss for what to do. Even his basic medical training fled in the face of the suffering of one he loved.
Anna bustled back into the room, silently glancing over at the pair as she put the pitcher down beside the bed and poured a fresh glass of juice.
"Did you give him any syrup?" Hutch whispered to her over Starsky's head.
She shook her head, whispering back. "I tried, but he was having none of it. It would surely help. Can I do anything?"
It was Hutch's turn to shake his head. "Thank you, I think I can manage." Starsky coughed weakly into Hutch's shirt, and the blond unconsciously began to rub his back again. "Do you know when Dr. Carberry will be by again?"
"I believe around lunchtime," Anna answered, pushing a few strands of loose hair back into place. "Shall I call him...?"
Hutch hesitated, glancing down at his partner. "No, he seems to be doing better. I'll just get the medicine into him."
Anna nodded, turning to go. "I'll bring thee lunch when it's ready."
Hutch didn't have a chance to thank her, preoccupied by another fit of hoarse coughing. He rode it out with Starsky, then shifted him so that he rested against Hutch's arm and shoulder, face turned toward the blond. His eyes were shut and his breathing uneven as Hutch reached for the bottle of syrup, pouring some of the thick orange liquid into a spoon. He had to coax Starsky into taking it, but managed to get two spoonfuls mostly into him, followed by some juice. The pills were harder; after a moment's thought, Hutch ground them up with the spoon in the bottom of the glass, then added a little more juice and got his patient to swallow that, too. Starsky was only marginally aware throughout the process, but he obeyed his partner when he understood what was being asked of him. With the partial let-up of coughing, his breathing calmed, too, not so loud or desperate.
The fever that Hutch could feel through the thin shirt still troubled him, though. Not wanting to rouse the other again and provoke another attack, he kept Starsky resting against him while with his free hand he soaked the washcloth in the basin, then used it to cool his friend's arms, face, and neck, drawing out the heat and wiping away the perspiration until the skin felt less hot.
Everything he could think of done, Hutch hesitated. Fading memories returned of lying helplessly in Starsky's arms, ashamed at his own weakness and filth. Starsky had held him close for those long hours without revulsion or complaint, tending to him, loving him. To Hutch, lost and alone in pain and fear, it had meant everything. But in the week since, the very same love that he had so hungrily latched onto then made him uncomfortable and self-conscious. His friend had seen him at the very worst-how could that not change things between them?
He looked down as the dark head stirred against him. And yet. And yet he felt no disgust at doing the same for Starsky, anything the other needed, without second thought or discomfort. Willingly. The unpleasantness of some of the tasks became insignificant in face of being able to give something back of all that he'd gotten over the past few years of their friendship, to show his love in return. And it seemed to matter as much to Starsky as it had to him.
His hesitation broke. Hutch adjusted the pillows at the head of the bed, then slowly eased them both around so that he could lean back and rest his partner against him, angling the smaller man more upright than before.
Starsky tensed, fighting the movement, struggling to keep the coughing from starting again. Hutch stroked the dark curls. "Shh, Starsk, it's me. I've got ya. It's okay." He repeated it until he felt Starsky let go and lie easily in Hutch's arms like a sick child. The blond folded his partner close, wanting to give the sense of security the other needed to rest easy, and after a few minutes he could feel it working as Starsky's breathing got quieter and his full weight settled against his partner. Hutch replaced the drying washcloth, whispering words he knew his friend no longer heard, and pulled the extra quilts up around the sagging shoulders. Then he sat back to think, his hand still idly stroking the curly hair.
A quiet knock woke him from the sleep he hadn't realized he'd succumbed to. After another initial moment of disorientation, he felt the heavy weight nestled against him and quickly looked down into Starsky's face. He didn't seem as flushed or warm as before, to Hutch's great relief, and his breathing was deep and even. Hutch rubbed the sleep from his eyes with his free hand and looked over at the door. "Come in," he called as loudly as he dared.
The door opened and Anna peered around it at him. She smiled at the sight of Starsky resting comfortably, apparently not the least bit surprised to see him using his partner as a pillow. "Good, he's sleeping," she whispered as she tiptoed in, carrying a covered tray.
Hutch grinned. "I think his fever's going down."
"Thank God," Anna answered fervently. Hutch couldn't help but add his own thanks. The woman set the tray down by the bed, and Hutch caught the aroma of warm bread coming from it. "Dinner is ready," she seemed to answer his unspoken thought. "Thee both slept through lunch; neither Eric nor I wanted to wake thee, but thee must be hungry by now. Eric should be by again soon, too."
Hutch looked at the clock in surprise, realizing abruptly that it was after eight and dark outside, but his smile didn't disappear; there was too much contentment inside him. Starsky was doing better and he himself felt nearly human again for the first time in two weeks, despite the ache in his back from having a 165-pound unconscious partner pressing against him. Hutch didn't mind it a bit. "What's for dinner?" he whispered, pushing himself up a bit and feeling Starsky snuggle closer in barely disturbed sleep.
"Roast beef and potatoes, but I thought thee might have thy hands full so I made thee a roast beef sandwich. I hope that is all right."
Hutch was beginning to seriously like this woman. "That's perfect," he said gratefully. "On fresh bread, too?"
She blushed. "My mother's recipe," she said. She sat down in the chair beside the bed and watched with delight as Hutch reached awkwardly over and found the sandwich, then took a large bite. After beaming her pleasure at him, she asked, "Did thee find who thee was looking for today?"
Hutch nodded around his full mouth. After swallowing, he managed, "Sally Snyder." He noticed immediately when Anna's smile faltered. "Do you know her?" he asked.
"Apple Creek is a small town. I have not met the girl, but I do know of her." She suddenly leaned forward to rest a small hand on Hutch's arm. "Be careful, Ken. If thee have business with her, take care of thyself."
Hutch was surprised at her urgency. Forgetting the sandwich, he asked, "Could you tell me about her?"
Anna looked uncomfortable. "Gossip is an evil," she murmured.
Hutch reached out to her this time, his large hand covering both hers. "Anna, this isn't idle curiosity. I think she's the key to the case Starsky and I are working on." He hesitated, debating on how much to say. "Starsky came here looking for someone, a suspected arsonist and murderer by the name of Daniel Westerly. A few hours after Starsky got here, Sally Snyder had him arrested for assault and attempted rape. I'm not sure why, but I think it has to do with Westerly." Hutch shook his head. "I didn't get here 'til two days later, that's how Starsky got so sick, in jail, by himself."
Anna's mouth had opened as he talked, but now she looked only with compassion at the sleeping figure. "Oh my," she said softly, "I didn't know." She looked up at Hutch, her face set. "I can tell thee why. Sally Snyder's beau is a man by the name of Daniel. She talks of him often, though it is believed that he is responsible for the bruises the poor woman has on her face and arms sometimes." Anna's eyes were mournful. "He is not well-liked in town, but no one knows much of him. Poor Sally."
Hutch held his tongue, recalling the caustic figure he'd talked to just a few hours before. It was hard to think of her with pity, but then, he had no idea what her life was like with the violent Westerly. What mattered was that the last link had been found. If only the sheriff had had half a mind, he could've figured it out long before Hutch had come down to look for his partner. But perhaps Dalton could still do something right yet. "Do you think that phone'll reach here?" he asked Anna animatedly, pointing to the instrument on the dresser.
"I'm certain of it," Anna answered, puzzled, but she got up and fetched it for him.
Hutch shifted his hold on Starsky a little bit, content when the other didn't stir, and picked up the phone. Then looked up blankly at Anna. "Do you know the number of the sheriff's office?" he asked sheepishly.
She smiled. "No, but Betsy does. She'll connect thee to Sheriff Dalton."
Betsy. Hutch kept back a grin. He dialed for the operator and Betsy was soon connecting him to Dalton's office. Anna took the chance to slip out of the room to give him some privacy.
"Hello, Sheriff Dalton speakin'."
"Sheriff, this is Detective Hutchinson."
The sheriff's voice dropped several degrees in warmth. "Yes, Officer?"
"Sheriff, my partner was down here on official business, looking for a man by the name of Daniel Westerly. Are you familiar with that name?"
There was a pause. "Can't say I am."
Hutch made a face. Fine, they'd do it the hard way. "Westerly is wanted in L.A. for arson and murder. He also happens to be the boyfriend of Sally Snyder."
Silence. Hutch couldn't believe that even this sheriff couldn't put those pieces together. Finally, grudgingly, Dalton spoke up. "So you think that Sally charged your partner to get her man off the hook."
"I'm sure of it!" Hutch declared, lowering his voice at once when Starsky moaned and stirred. "Don't you think it would bear checking out?" he said softly.
More silence. To agree with Hutch would mean perhaps admitting he'd been wrong. Hutch silently pleaded that the man would stick to his badge instead of his pride. "All right," came the reluctant final response. "It wouldn't hurt to look int'it. But you two don't go anywhere 'til this is settled, ya hear me?"
Hutch smiled thinly. Let the man have his last word. "Sure," he said shortly. "Thank you," then hung up without waiting for a response.
Starsky stirred again, and Hutch decided to take advantage of the opportunity. "Starsky?" he queried, setting the phone aside. "Hey, time for medicine, pal."
Deep blue opened partway, staring at him groggily. Hutch smiled for their benefit, then fiddled with the medicine bottle for a moment. He was getting good at doing it one-handed; he persuaded Starsky to swallow the stuff, then to drink nearly a full glass of juice. Upon finishing that, he rallied his partner enough to take care of bathroom detail. Despite the movement, Starsky's cough was only sporadic now and he seemed to be breathing fairly trouble-free. But Hutch, mindful of the setback that morning, paused only to change into a fresh shirt, pushing up the long-sleeves in the heat of the room, then drew his partner back into the warmth of the bed, holding him upright with the dark head resting in the hollow of his neck. Starsky was soon comfortably under again, and Hutch managed to polish off the rest of his sandwich.
Carberry arrived shortly after. After cursory greetings, he went on to check Starsky's vital signs, listening to him breathe and checking his temperature once more, careful to disturb him as little as possible. Hutch watched the whole thing intently, smiling with the doctor at the finding that Starsky's temperature was 101 and seemed to be falling. Carberry also said his breathing sounded better, with which Hutch happily concurred. The doctor put away his equipment and sat beside the bed.
"He should be a lot more aware by tomorrow. Whatever it is you've been doing, keep doing it, 'cause it seems to be just the ticket. A little more rest and quiet and he'll be past the worst of it."
"When can I take him home?" Hutch asked softly.
"Oh, I'd say in two to three days. Provided he can rest on the trip and goes straight to bed upon getting home. He won't be ready to be active for another week or so, or he'll risk exciting the bronchitis again."
Starsky was a bad patient, but Hutch vowed to himself that there was no way he'd let his partner go anywhere until that week was up. He had no desire to risk a repeat of the past few days. He absently reached up to brush a hand through his hair, sighing in relief at the good news.
The strange expression on the doctor's face suddenly caught his attention, and it only took him a moment to realize what the man was looking at. Cheeks burning with shame, he quickly lowered his arm and turned it so the fading line of tracks weren't visible, embarrassed to meet the doctor's eyes.
Carberry's voice held no condemnation. "I thought you seemed more than just tired," he remarked simply.
"It's not what you think," Hutch murmured, defensively pulling Starsky a little bit closer to him.
"How do you know what I think?" The tone was mild.
Hutch looked up in surprise. "I was...kidnapped. They shot me up to get... something...information." His eyes went back down to his lap.
"I knew you weren't a user. Addicts are pretty obvious."
Hutch's voice was bitter. "I was addicted. Hooked. They had me wanting it..." Some part of him was surprised that he was talking about it at all, let alone to a relative stranger, but he was too tired to stop himself. He'd deal with the new shame later when he wasn't so overwhelmed already.
"Hutch," he quietly corrected. They certainly seemed to be on an informal basis by now.
"Hutch. I don't know what you've been told, but it takes several weeks for the body to physically change, to become fully addicted to heroin. These marks are all fairly fresh-I'm guessing were made within days of each other, am I right?" Hutch barely nodded. "That's not addiction, that's withdrawal from short-term effects. You don't feel any cravings now, do you?" Hutch slowly shook his head, raising it slightly. "You're not an addict, Hutch. You never were. You were just drugged for a while. It's sickening and humiliating, but not worth beating yourself up over. You're fortunate you got out of it when you did."
Something flared in Hutch and then died again. Semantics. That was all it was, a question of semantics. "Starsky helped me kick it," he whispered, closing his eyes for a moment.
"No wonder he trusts you."
The doctor's words almost hurt. Why do you trust me, Starsk? How many times have you picked me up out of the gutter and taken care of me? More than he cared to remember: Van's departure, the mess in San Diego, Forest and company...
"Is that why you're doing this?"
Hutch's head jerked up in surprise at the words. "What?"
Carberry met his eyes steadily. "Is that why you're doing this? Because you owe him?"
Hutch shook his head wearily. He supposed he should be angry, but the question was asked so sincerely, he felt compelled to respond. "No. We don't owe each other. We just... I love him. He's my partner." Hutch ran out of words. But that seemed to sum it up.
The doctor nodded slowly, smiling a little. "Not many people can say that like you just did. I'd say you're pretty lucky." He stood, collected his bag. "So is he," he added seriously. He quietly shut the door behind him.
Hutch sat stunned. The doctor's words were slowly melting something frozen in his heart. Starsky hadn't been there for him out of duty or debt, but because he wanted to, the same reason Hutch was there for him now. A lifetime of building protective walls and letting few in had almost blinded him to the fact. Sometimes there were no reasons, no cause for shame, no debt to be repaid. Just love. Sitting there, nearly crushed and hot as anything, he'd never felt so... free.
His lightheartedness gave way to fatigue. Starsky wasn't the only one with mending still to do. But the tiredness felt good, not sapping his strength and will as before. He smiled as he snuggled into the pillows, feeling Starsky settle comfortably in sleep with him. The rest of the world faded away.
Movement woke him gradually. There was no panic this time, despite his not understanding for a moment what elephant had taken up residence on his chest. He was feeling too at peace for anxiety.
Something was still shifting against him, though, and his mind finally put a tag to it. Junk food-loving partners. If they were going to make a habit of this, he'd have to get Starsky to lay off those candy bars. His partner had hardly coughed all night, and didn't seem to be in distress now, but Hutch opened an eye curiously nevertheless.
Starsky wasn't fully awake yet, going through the motions of approaching consciousness. The sweat of a breaking fever dampened both their clothes and Hutch freed one hand to brush his partner's forehead, breathing an inward sigh of relief at the coolness he felt. One less thing to worry about.
The touch made the dark-circled eyes open, and they looked around in puzzlement for a moment before coming to rest on Hutch.
"Hey," the blond said cheerfully. "Welcome back."
Starsky's uncertain expression didn't go away as his eyes left Hutch's face and took in the situation, Hutch sitting up at the end of the bed, one arm wrapped around Starsky, who was curled up against him. His eyes went back to Hutch, who began to blush. That sight prompted an upward turn of the corner of Starsky's mouth.
"Starsky, if you laugh, so help me..." Hutch trailed off warningly.
Starsky did smile at that, a spark appearing in the tired eyes, but there was no teasing in it. He yawned. "Wha's goin' on?" he finally croaked, voice still raw from the coughing.
Hutch saw him close his eyes and swallow to relieve the soreness, and he reached over with his free hand to retrieve a glass from the nightstand. "Here," he instructed, "this'll help."
Starsky's hands were a little shaky, but with a minimum of help he drained the glass and, enervated, leaned back against the conveniently close shoulder, eyes still on his partner.
"What do you remember?" Hutch asked quietly.
The drawn face furrowed with concentration-when Starsky gave himself to thinking, he did it all the way. "Gettin' t'town... Goin' to talk to the girl...got knocked out walkin' back...." He made a face. "Lost m'gun 'n shield. Dobey's gonna kill me." He coughed a little. "Next thing I know, sheriff was draggin' me off. Kinda fuzzy after that...didn't feel so good, couldn't call ya...." Starsky stared up at Hutch. "Couldn't breathe. But I wasn't...worried." He smiled shyly at his still-blushing partner. "You musta been here." It was his turn now to drop his eyes in embarrassment. The talking cost him, as his lungs protested with several more hoarse coughs, and he leaned more heavily into his support.
"Don't talk anymore," Hutch quietly ordered. The vague relation had given him most of the final details he'd been missing, but his thoughts weren't on the case. "Yeah, I was here. Couldn't let one of L.A.'s finest languish in jail," he said softly, his tone not matching the light-hearted words.
"Thanks for comin'," Starsky finally whispered.
"You're welcome," Hutch whispered back, also not finding his voice.
A minute passed. "'M I squishin' ya?"
"Y'mind if I sleep a li'l more? Kinda husked out." The voice was getting softer on each word.
There were medicines to be taken and Hutch wouldn't have minded a quick trip to the bathroom. But breakfast was only a few more hours away and despite his not-wholly comfortable position, he had no desire to move. "No, go back to sleep. I'll be right here."
"I know," Starsky sighed, then went silent.
Hutch still felt tired from his sporadic sleeping of the previous two days, waking to Starsky's every movement or cough, but at the moment he wasn't sleepy. He lay still and alternately stared at the ceiling and at the peaceful face inches below his. The thank you he'd gotten hadn't been just for coming, and the blond felt the unsaid in the very deep part of his soul, much more so than many empty expressions of love he'd heard in his life. He was the one who felt grateful.
Knowing his partner would soon be unrestrainably active and endearingly embarrassed by any spontaneous show of affection, Hutch chose to indulge himself for a moment now, burying his face briefly in the dark hair and whispering his own thanks. Starsky had once, in an unguarded moment, told Hutch that he'd restored Starsky's faith in God. Hutch had been speechless at the time and the topic had soon changed and was not brought up again. But ever since this ball of energy had come into his life and, for some reason, latched onto him, inviting him to share, the blond knew what he meant. And that was something even Forest at his worst couldn't take away.
Several hours later, when Starsky surfaced briefly once more, Hutch finally untangled himself, trying to force blood back into all his limbs. The brunet had been more asleep than awake as Hutch took care of some necessities and then bundled him back into bed. Starsky was finally breathing without trouble, and Hutch arranged the pillows for him so he was lying mostly flat now. After eliciting a promise from Hutch that he would stick close, Starsky dozed off once more.
After a shower and fresh clothes, Hutch felt mostly alive again, though his improved state of mind had little to do with physical refreshment. He quietly left the room in search of another telephone and some food.
He was just carefully pulling the door shut as the familiar voice spoke happily up behind him. "Ken! I was just coming to see thee. I'm so glad to see thee up-is David better?"
Hutch turned to face her, suddenly pulling her into a hug. "He's fine. Everything's fine," he grinned.
She laughed, not seeming to mind a bit even as he let her go and self-consciously blushed. "Oh my. If thee aren't careful, I might get used to that." She patted his cheek with motherly affection. "I was coming to get thee-Sheriff Dalton is out in the parlor and would like a word with thee."
Even the mention of the surly lawman couldn't dampen Hutch's mood too much. He followed Anna down the hall, his mind switching gears back to the case he'd been dwelling on while Starsky slept. He had a good idea what Dalton would have to say.
The lawman's sheepish expression confirmed his suspicions. Hutch looked at him soberly, not wanting to make this a bit easier for the man. "Yes, Sheriff, can I help you?"
Dalton's hat was in his hands and he was twisting the brim. "Uh, you were right about Sally and that fella, Westerly. I caught 'em last night, gettin' ready to leave town. Westerly's locked up, thought I'd wait and see what y'all wanted t'do with him."
Hutch was silently impressed at the way the lawman had handled the dangerous felon; apparently there was some reason he'd been given the position, after all. It didn't improve his opinion of the man much, though. "And Starsky?" he asked coolly.
Dalton reached into his jacket and pulled out a large, bulky envelope. He looked even more embarrassed as he reached it out to Hutch. "We found this at Sally's place-Westerly musta stole it from your partner before. Charges have all been dropped. I am sorry, Detective, I didn't know-"
Hutch took it, giving the contents a cursory glance, then levelly looking back at Dalton. "Next time, you might save the verdict until after the trial. If you'd given Starsky his one phone call, this all could've been avoided."
The red-faced Dalton couldn't argue, only grudgingly nodded.
Hutch, vindicated, finally let him off the hook. "Thank you, Sheriff. We won't be taking charge of the prisoner right now, but I'll call our captain and have him send someone down."
The lawman nodded again and beat a hasty retreat. Hutch shook his head, smiling grimly as he pulled the holstered Smith & Wesson and Starsky's ID and shield out of the envelope. Case solved and Starsky even had his gun and shield back. It hadn't been hard to put the pieces together but it nevertheless felt good being a cop again, Hutch thought with satisfaction. Whistling, he left in search of a phone to call Dobey.
Two days later, with Carberry's approval, Hutch bundled his partner in a quilt that Anna had forced on them and loaded him into the car for the drive back home. The doctor had privately given him a check-up, too, leaving Hutch with a bottle of pills for the occasional headaches and bouts of nausea he still had, but otherwise pronouncing him fit and completely drug-free. Starsky had appeared to sleep through the examination, but upon the doctor's departure, Hutch had turned to find his partner watching him with pride glinting in wide-open eyes and a grin that threatened to break his face. And Hutch's composure.
Starsky had also managed to thoroughly endear himself to Anna after a real introduction, leading to what Hutch suspected was liberal spoiling going on behind his back. He'd chewed them both out upon finding Starsky eating freshly baked donuts as one of his first solid meals in days, but suspected it did little good and finally gave up in mock exasperation. Nor did he protest when Anna packed them a feast of homemade goodies for the trip back home. Hutch doubted he'd see much of it, though; Starsky immediately claimed the basket and hung on to it possessively with both hands. Hutch just shook his head.
Saying good-bye to Anna himself was harder than he expected. He hugged her again, surprised to find a lump in his throat. She returned his embrace, giving his back a pat as she released him. "Now take care of thyselves, and thee call me sometime," she instructed, wiping at her eyes.
He smiled at her. "I will. Thank you, Anna. For both of us, for everything. I won't forget."
"God be with thee," she patted his arm.
"I think He has been," he answered softly, then kissed her gently on the cheek before turning to climb into the Torino. She waved good-bye to them as they rounded the corner and drove out of sight.
Starsky settled back in the quilt, the picnic basket still firmly settled in his lap. Hutch thought the other was asleep as they drove on in silence for several minutes, his eyes on the unfamiliar roads, when the quiet query startled him.
His partner's voice wasn't back fully yet, but Hutch was getting used to the quiet, scratchy sound. "Yeah?"
"Are you okay?"
The question might've easily seemed ridiculous, Starsky still pale and tired-looking and Hutch having gained back some of both his weight and color with Anna's good cooking and plenty of restful sleep while Starsky recuperated next to him. But he knew full well what Starsky was asking.
"Yeah, Starsk, I really am," he answered honestly. More okay than he'd ever thought he'd be a week before. Everything seemed bearable when there was someone you could truly share it with.
"Good." Starsky looked satisfied, hugging the basket to him as he curled up in the seat, almost disappearing into the quilt. "Wake me when we get home, huh?" he yawned.
"Sure, partner," Hutch agreed, turning back to the road. He smiled at the claim he staked with that title, it felt so... right. Nor did he need to look to know that Starsky had dozed off with a smile to match his own.
Written in 1997