This story first appeared in the zine, Ouch! #4 (1998). This zine, and other fine S&H gen zines, can be obtained from Neon Rainbow Press: http://www.neonrainbowpress.com/ Comments on this story can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org and will be forwarded to the author.
K Hanna Korossy
It was supposed to be a joke. One more prank in the long string of them they constantly played on each other, meant to lighten the mood and have some fun and poke a little fun at the other. Even, in some ways, to show they cared. Harmless fun.
It wasn't turning out to be very funny.
Starsky picked himself up off the floor, cheeks burning, as the whole squadroom burst into laughter. And at the forefront, Hutch, nearly doubled over in mirth. It had been a stupid prank, really, one Starsky might've thought of himself, except that it played off of making him seem inept and it had just been witnessed by all his colleagues. His mouth quirked in an attempt to grin it off; looking like a bad sport would just make it worse. Pride dented, he pulled together his remaining dignity and, with a last glance at his partner, who now had tears in his eyes, turned and strode out of the room.
He'd only gotten a few steps when someone burst out the squadroom doors behind him. Starsky didn't turn, but he knew those footsteps and felt himself cringe. Hutch was the last person on earth he wanted to see at the moment.
"Hey, Starsk, where you going?" There was still lingering laughter in the voice.
Starsky found himself burning with a feeling he'd never, ever felt before toward the other. Hatred. "None of your business," he ground out.
The footsteps lagged for a moment, then picked up again. "Starsky, you're not mad because--"
Starsky jerked to a halt, sensing the other behind him pull back to avoid running into him. He spun around. "Because you made me look like an idiot in front o'everybody? Why should I be?"
There was genuine puzzlement in the sky blue eyes. "C'mon, Starsk, it was just a joke. Don't take it so seriously."
Starsky almost choked over that one. If he answered, it wouldn't be calmly, and making another scene would be more than he could bear. He turned again and stalked away instead.
"Starsky--" There was an edge of pleading now in the other's voice, beginning concern. Starsky ignored it. Dobey's voice calling Hutch back for something made it even easier. He could feel Hutch's hesitation, then his partner retreated, leaving Starsky to storm out alone. He wasn't even sure where to.
The beach, of all places. Starsky's conscience tweaked a little about leaving early, but it hadn't been that early and he knew Dobey would, after ranting a bit, forgive him. He was too upset to do any good at the office at the moment, anyway, especially having to look at Hutch sitting across the desk from him.
After stomping through the sand for a while, the initial overwhelming anger and humiliation faded and his own reaction began to puzzle him a little. Since back at the Academy, when a streetsmart New Yorker had taught a midwestern hick to indulge his warped humor and cut loose, he and Hutch had always one-upped the other, playing jokes and pranks. It was the way they interacted with each other and with friends, often the more embarrassing the better. He'd certainly pulled his share on Hutch, too. Sometimes it stung his pride a little bit, but he'd never minded it before. Why now?
Maybe because, over time, Hutch's pranks had gotten more and more hard-edged. There were times when they seemed cruel, wanting to hurt. Nor did the blond ever seem that mean with anyone but his best friend.
Or maybe it was that this time, the joke had played on Starsky's ability and skill as a cop. Starsky had worked hard for his reputation, and while this stupid stunt couldn't destroy that, it would tarnish it a little.
Or maybe it was just that it was Hutch. Having fun was one thing, but truly humiliating him was another. Starsky had trusted his friend, and Hutch had taken advantage, broken that faith, and cut him down all in one sweep. And it had hurt. It still hurt. The anger was mostly gone, but the injury to his pride and trust wasn't about to pass as quickly.
Starsky flopped down on the sand with a sigh. He'd always indulged Hutch because, well, the blond hadn't always had a chance to have much unconstrained fun before, and sometimes he still didn't know how to do it right. Starsky knew and understood that, not minding stuff that Hutch did that might've upset others. In fact, he was glad Hutch trusted him enough to be himself like that. Maybe the blond just hadn't realized now that he was going too far...
But how could he not? He knew Starsky as well as the brunet knew him; couldn't he tell that he was poking at something sensitive? Starsky's face set at the thought. Well, he wasn't about to take the first step, nor was he ready to receive an overture of reconciliation, either. For now, there was no hurry, he'd stay and let the salt air and crashing waves do their own soothing. He wrapped his arms around himself. At least no one would find him here. And for the first time he could remember, that was truly the way he preferred it.
"Zebra Three, we are responding."
Hutch hung up the mike and glanced across at the driver's side of the car as Starsky put on the gas. The armed bank hold-up they were speeding to seemed far less consequential than what was going on inside the Torino.
He'd been annoyed at first to find that Starsky still hadn't forgiven him for the prank of two days before. Hutch hated when the brunet pouted, in no small part because Hutch was usually the one who ended up giving in, whether he was in the wrong or not. But the annoyance hadn't lasted as he'd gotten a good look at Starsky. There was a hesitation and a hurt in those dark eyes that the blond realized with a lurch that he had caused. Normally even the worst situations didn't get to Starsky long, bouncing off the incredibly resilient detective with an ease Hutch envied. Not that things didn't touch Starsky--sometimes they seemed to hit him more than Hutch. But with an ability to cope honed in the streets and the jungle of Southeast Asia and beside his father's grave, Starsky tended to quietly deal with his demons and then move on.
Which was why Hutch couldn't understand why the silence and tension remained two days later. It had just been a stupid joke! They pulled them on each other all the time. In fact, it had been Starsky who had taught him to express his long-suppressed humor in mischief and practical jokes. Hutch was frustrated by the inexplicability of it, but more than anything, he felt guilty. Somehow he'd hurt Starsky without meaning to.
At least, he didn't think he'd meant to.
That thought bothered him and he let it go.
But he'd kept turning the memory over in his mind, trying to understand, and he hadn't been able to, not until he was rounding a corridor in Parker and caught the tail end of a conversation...
"...just Starsky tripping on his own feet again."
The moment Hutch registered what he was hearing, fury blinded him. He charged over to the uniform who'd said the words, someone he didn't even know, and slammed him against the wall hard enough that the wind whooshed out of the man.
"What did you say?" he asked quietly.
The man paled, his face showing his wavering between anger and fear. "Hey, we weren't talking about you," he stuttered, "Just your partner. Everyone knows you're just carrying him--you were pretty obvious about it the other day. Can't even chew gum and walk at the same time, right?"
The urge to pound the cop's face in cooled at once as what he said sunk in. But...it had been a joke. Surely Simmons and Babcock and Gabe and all their other friends knew that. Of course, there had been others there, too, but had they really...
Hutch had let go of the man in shock, not even noticing as he and his friends used the opportunity to get out of there. It had never, ever occurred to him that just because he and Starsky rarely worked on their own that anyone would think they weren't equal partners. The idea of him carrying Starsky nearly made him laugh, except he suddenly wondered if Starsky had ever faced the same condescension. He hadn't been the one with the money, the college degree, or the "golden boy" looks that had given Hutch a leg up. With Starsky's behavior the last two days, Hutch guessed that yeah, he had heard whispers like this before, and that the blond had suddenly just made it a lot harder for him. And all the more so because Hutch was the last person Starsky had expected it from.
With his conscience seared and full of remorse, he'd tried to talk to Starsky about it, to explain and apologize and try to make amends. His partner had only rebuffed every attempt to talk. The brunet was not one to hold a grudge, but his surface toughness hid depths and breadths of emotion unknown to most, and once Starsky let someone past it, he was easy to injure. And that he didn't recover so quickly from.
So Hutch had done the one thing he could think to, bide his time, protecting the exposed nerves from outside observers, surrounding Starsky in concern and affection until the brunet had his feet back under him and Hutch could fix things. He'd done it before with Starsky when his partner was suffering, as Starsky had for him, but never before because of harm he'd inflicted himself. He could only hope that whatever breach there was, was fixable. Nor would he give up until it was.
Still no comment from the driver as the Torino squealed around a corner, and Hutch sighed as they pulled up behind several black-and-whites, mind reluctantly shifting to the duty at hand. Distraction in a shoot-out would only get someone killed.
The scene was an organized chaos of cops and gawking civilians surrounding the bank, which stood silent and closed. The tinted windows offered no sign of life inside.
"Situation?" Hutch asked the most senior uniform he could find. Despite the apparent large crowd, there were only four policemen already at the scene, with two squad cars. Reinforcements had yet to arrive.
"We think three armed inside, although we're not sure. Eyewitness came out of the bank right before the shooting started and only said he saw three. But they've got about a half-dozen customers hostage in there, plus three or four bank employees," the man reported in crisp detail.
Hutch nodded. "You got anyone around back?"
"Not yet. Just got here a minute before you, Sergeant."
Hutch looked at his partner, but the other glanced at him only long enough to make clear what he was going to do, not to discuss. Hutch's lips tightened a little as Starsky pulled his gun out.
"I'm going around back." Starsky hefted the walkie-talkie he'd retrieved from the car. "I'll call in if I get anywhere."
Hutch didn't say anything. He hadn't been asked. Instead, his eyes silently followed Starsky's progress as the brunet went widely around to the right, out of the line of vision of anyone watching within the bank, then cut around towards the back. Soon, he was no longer in sight.
Hutch sighed, then turned back to the uniform to begin standard procedure.
The call minutes later was the first clue that something was wrong.
Hutch straightened at once, feeling an inexplicable shiver as he watched the bank door slowly begin to open. He grabbed a walkie-talkie from the cop standing next to him.
"Starsky?" No answer. That wasn't unexpected; Starsky could easily have turned the volume down to keep from accidentally giving his position away. But the shiver was turning into a chill.
The door opened all the way, and several figures advanced out the door, five of them in all, four of them masked and unidentifiable. And in the very lead, a knife firmly positioned against his hostage's side, was one of the masked men with his arm around Starsky's neck.
"We got a hostage!"
The warning was very controlled, all the calmness of a professional even though the job had the earmarks of an amateur bank robbery. It would make the outcome less unpredictable, but also less hopeful.
"Hold your fire!" Hutch yelled quickly, to both sides. Others of the robbers appeared to have guns, and a shootout wouldn't help anyone, least of all the man in the lead. Starsk...
Hutch's gaze met his partner's, and for a moment, there was a flash of the defensiveness of before, lingering resentment, then it was gone, replaced by trust and reassurance. Naturally. He was being taken hostage and he wanted to make Hutch feel better.
Hutch absurdly felt like screaming.
Instead, he cupped his hands around his mouth. "You're just getting yourselves in deeper. Let your hostage go and we'll talk." Yeah, they'll listen to that, he thought bitterly as soon as the words were out, but he had to try it. The reaction was all he expected; as if he'd never spoken, the group sidled over to a white Dodge parked nearby, all of them careful to stay as much behind Starsky and his captor as possible.
There just wasn't anything he could do. There hadn't been enough time to get marksmen in place to blow the guy away who was hanging on to Starsky, and any other move would most probably end up with a knife in the brunet's side. Hutch's fists curled in helpless anger as he watched the five men pour into the car, Starsky dragged in last, and the doors slam shut. Then they pulled away in a screech of tires and were gone. Hutch was left alone there to stare after the retreating car and wonder what had gone wrong and whether Starsky would make it out of this alive or not.
He was on the radio a second later, calling in the license plate, putting out an APB, but the urge to do something more was driving him insane. It made his skin crawl and his feet restless with it. Pursuit was useless, he knew it; the bad guys had maneuvered them too far from their cars before taking off. With Starsky. The knife had been pressed sharply into his partner's side, he had seen the discomfort of it in Starsky's eyes. Neither of them had said good-bye in that little bit of time, though. Starsky was too stubborn to give in, and Hutch refused to believe it. Especially not with things so unsettled between them. He just had to make things up to Starsky or else...
Hutch growled low in frustration as he spun around and kicked the Torino's tire. It wasn't his way to take out his anger on physical objects; it was usually Starsky who had to be restrained from breaking the innocent coffeepots and chairs. But Starsky wasn't there, and a Hutch without a Starsky was... one half of two people. Lacking. Everything, including restraint.
The radio called back with the unhelpful news of the car having been stolen, and Hutch swallowed another curse. Now wasn't the time. The dispatcher also relayed that Dobey was coming to the scene, and Hutch dimly acknowledged it. But he wasn't going to hang around and waste time talking. He was a detective and he had a partner to detect. He wasn't about to let Starsky get away now, not without Hutch having had a chance to apologize. Not with his best friend still hurting because of him...
Hutch jerked open the car door and got in, heading out into the city to ask some questions and find some answers.
The bank robbers couldn't be professionals, Starsky decided before long. While they'd been organized and rehearsed throughout the job, and the way they'd snuck up on him while he checked out the back entrance spoke of experience, it was clear now that they had no plan as to what to do now, with a hostage and the law on their heels. He wondered how long it would take for the old movies they'd seen to kick in and for them to realize that after having taken their masks off inside the car, Starsky had seen them and couldn't be allowed to live.
For now, though, they kept him squished into the far corner of the back seat, a knife digging into his side whenever he dared open his mouth. The door couldn't be unlocked from the back for some reason, and he'd soon given up on the idea of escape. Goading, psychology, nothing had else worked and he could already feel a little bit of blood trickling down his side, so he'd finally shut up and watched and waited.
There were four thieves, with the clear leader in the front passenger seat. Despite the evident edginess of the three men, none had seemed to question the fourth's orders, an unusual situation. Obviously there was something more at work here than an amateur, hastily thrown together bunch of bank robbers.
The car continued up north, past Glendale and Burbank, heading up towards San Fernando and the suburbs. Starsky watched the road with hidden interest, keeping track of where they were.
It finally veered off onto a side road, then to the back of a sizeable business building, into the loading alley behind. There it stopped, and all four men piled out, the one next to Starsky keeping a large hand twined in his jacket collar.
Now was the time. He could see it as the leader turned to him, cold, remorseless eyes boring into him. They had no more use for him, and whoever they were, these men had no compunctions about killing. The leader began to say something, then paused for a moment as a large freight truck rumbled up behind them to pass them, drowning him out. Now or never.
It took five long seconds. Starsky stomped down on the instep of the man who held on to him, and as his guard doubled over, pulled him by the arm in an arc to slam into one of the others. The third felon was already heading toward him, and Starsky paused only to lash out with a solid kick at his midsection, mentally timing the truck as it was nearly upon them. As it passed, Starsky reached up for the handle on the back, getting ready to jump.
Scuffle and movement behind him told him that one of the men he'd knocked down was back on their feet, and then there was a tug at his side, prompting him to swing around with a solid left that connected hard, jarring him up to his elbow and flooring the other man for good. Without wasting a second, he leapt after the departing truck, just managing to snag the handle and swing himself up onto the rear fender. As he looked back, his eyes met the one man still standing, the leader, watching him motionlessly with fixed eyes. The eyes of someone who wouldn't give up. Starsky shivered.
The truck rolled on, out of the alley and up a smaller street, leaving Starsky unnoticed as he hung on to the back. That had almost been too easy; perhaps the men hadn't been as skilled as he thought. Now all he had to do was wait for the truck to stop, then find someplace to call Hutch and wait for his partner to come get him. Maybe it was even time for them to talk. Being taken hostage and threatened with death was enough to make almost anything seem inconsequential. Remembered shame sifted into Starsky's mind and he sighed at the ache it caused. Well, almost anything. There was a lot of clearing up left to do.
The ache seemed to spread through him, seeping away his energy and making him a little lightheaded. He frowned in confusion, absently noting that the truck was dripping something dark onto the street as it sped along. If felt like they were going faster and faster, and it was getting hard for him to hold on, his fingers becoming numb and stiff.
The truck jolted across a bump, and the ache suddenly became agonizing, centered around his middle. Starsky automatically freed a hand to wrap around himself, but his fingers encountered something warm and wet.
It wasn't the truck that was dripping.
The dizziness got worse, and he barely noticed when the truck stopped at for a light, only realizing as he sagged off its back onto the street that the world was turning in circles instead of speeding forward.
Oh, God, it hurts! He pressed a hand hard to his side and bit his lip. The buildings around him were dancing and growing tall and dim. Between two of them was a refuge of darkness, and he forced his feet toward it, tracing every footstep in his mind's eye to keep himself moving. Should call Hutch...in couple'a minutes. He needed to rest for a moment first. Starsky misjudged the curb, and the jarring stumble lit his mind with pain. But he didn't need to see to trip those last few steps into the narrow alley, and he sagged to the ground behind some shelter. There, he managed on autopilot to worm his way out of his light jacket and wrap the cloth around his middle. As he pulled the makeshift bandage tight, the pain made him double over, and his energy bottomed out, the last of the numbness gone. The tormenting fire was more than he could bear, and his dark world slipped into silence and painlessness.
Hutch's mind felt like his partner often sounded, frantic and on high speed.
There was buzz on the street about the robbery, as there was about any major felony, but no one was talking. It wasn't obstinacy or playing for more money, because he'd offered both venomous threats and abundant funds without success. No, this was fear. And if everyone was so afraid, it didn't bode well for Starsky. Hutch wished one more time that breaking something would relieve some of his anxiety as it always seemed to for Starsky, but he knew it wouldn't. Instead, he felt the worry sing through his veins and make him lethally focused on finding his partner. For the moment, Hutch couldn't care less who got in his way.
He was near the Pits when he saw Huggy waving to him from the side of the street, and Hutch slowed the Torino to pull up beside the informant. "What've you got?" he asked tightly.
Huggy's brown eyes warmed with worry as they studied him. "You're not gonna believe this. Someone's puttin' out serious feelers for Starsky, and it ain't our friends in blue."
That was the one bit of news Hutch would never have expected. "Wha-- Who?"
"Seems to be the turkeys who grabbed him in the first place."
Hutch's confusion deepened. "But that means...Starsk must've lost 'em!" His smile faded almost as quickly. "So why hasn't he called? Maybe someone else got him?" The worry chewed at his stomach again.
Huggy shrugged, not without sympathy. "Maybe he can't get to a phone?" he offered hopefully.
Hutch thought for a moment. Starsky was out there and presumably free, but something was wrong, Hutch knew it. The urgency swelled up stronger than before. "No line yet about the creeps who did the bank job?" he asked quickly, starting up the car again.
"People have this strange aversion to getting their throats cut," Huggy dryly slipped back into the jive rhythm.
Hutch nodded; that was what he'd figured. "I'm going to check at Starsky's, just in case, and then I'm going out around Burbank where the car was last seen. If Starsky got away, he's probably not far from there. Call me if you hear anything."
He didn't have to ask and they both knew it. Huggy clapped him on the arm and then stepped back as the Torino roared away.
It wasn't supposed to happen this way. Cops caught the bad guys and won--or else they bit the odds and paid for it, and the next cop would have to get the bad guys instead. But they weren't supposed to win and then die. What was the logic in that?
He was so sick to his stomach. That was funny; his side should've been hurting instead. At least that was where all the blood was coming from, but instead it was his stomach that refused to cooperate. Well, that and his legs. He'd throw up again, except that it hurt too much. A knife in the side could do that to you, he supposed. You should see the other guy. The thought appealed to his morbid humor. Sometimes the only way a cop survived. Except he wasn't going to survive this one at all. And that despite the fact that he really had done a number on the other guys.
Hutch wouldn't think it was funny. Now there was a sobering thought. Starsky found all his earlier anger at his partner was gone now, and only lingering hurt remained. He'd seen Hutch's expression at the bank, and it had left Starsky with no doubts of the blond's feelings. But Hutch would be mad, first at him for doing something this stupid, then at the world at large. And Starsky knew his partner. Hutch would never forgive, not him or the world, not really. He'd stay mad all his life, just so it wouldn't hurt so bad.
Oh, partner. You better hurry up or I'm gonna do one last thing to really tick you off.
Except it wasn't really the anger that bothered Starsky, it was what he knew would be behind that surface fury.
He reacted without thought to that fear, forcing starch back into legs that had started refusing orders some time ago, pushing himself up until the adrenaline faded out and he hit the ground, nearly losing tenuous consciousness. That hadn't been a good idea.
Face it, you're not goin' anywhere, David.
A shuffle of movement caught his attention at the mouth of the alley, and Starsky froze, shrinking back into the shadows as best he could. Was it possible that they'd found him after all?
The shape resolved into a stooped man dressed in tatters, clearly one of the street people who frequented the area. He was oblivious to Starsky, going first to one trash can, then another as he searched for something only he knew.
Starsky swallowed, gathering his strength. "Hey."
It came out pretty weakly for all the work he'd put into it, but the man still jerked and spun around, his gaze anxious.
"'M not gonna hurt you," Starsky muttered. "Just need help. Could you...help me?" The effort at speech hurt his gut.
The man looked at him suspiciously.
"Please," Starsky tried again. "I need help. You'll be...paid for it."
At the mention of money, the man moved a little closer, wariness still clear in his face. "Whaddaya want?" he rasped.
Starsky sagged a little. "You know...Huggy Bear? Owns the Pits? Sixth Street."
A slight nod. "Heard of 'im."
"Good. Tell him...Starsky needs help. Where I am. He'll take care of it." And call Hutch.
"You gonna pay me for that? That ain't close," the man ventured a step closer.
Starsky fumbled for a pocket, hardly able to dig down into it because even the little movement hurt. But he managed to get his hand inside and pulled out a handful of money. "Here." He would've reached it out, but he had no energy left to do it. Instead, the man swooped forward to grab it out of his hand. "More from Huggy. Tell 'im...I said."
The man was counting through the bills, then he glanced up at Starsky, the hostility gone. "Okay," was all he said, then he hesitated, some shred of remembered humanity returning to his expression. "Say, shouldn't I call ya an ambulance instead? You're bleeding, buddy."
Starsky was too tired to shake his head more than once. "Uh-uh. Not safe. Tell Huggy..."
"Yeah, yeah, I got it, don't worry." The man stuffed the money in his pocket and shuffled back out of the alley without a second glance.
It was no guarantee, but it was all Starsky had. With a sigh, he leaned back against the wall and dreamed about rescue to keep from thinking about how much he hurt and how lonely he suddenly felt.
"Zebra Three, come in, please."
Hutch snatched the mike up. "Zebra Three. Go ahead."
"I have a call for you from Huggy Bear."
"Patch it through, please." Hutch's heart sped up.
"Hutch?" Huggy sounded excited.
"Yeah, Hug, what is it?"
"I got a friend here I think you should talk to. Says he knows where Starsky is and just talked to him a little while ago."
Hutch's heart was hammering. "On the level?"
"Looks like it to me."
That was good enough for him. "On my way." He slapped the mars light on and raced toward the Pits.
Ironically, twenty minutes later it was close to where he'd been cruising that he returned to with Huggy beside him in the car and a decidedly bad-smelling stranger in the back seat. But the man had seemed to be telling the truth, and that made him the most wonderful person Hutch had ever met. The story he'd told of Starsky bleeding in an alley still left Hutch's throat tight, but at least his partner had been alive and coherent enough to send for help. Where there was life, there was hope. Funny how he'd forgotten that earlier...
"In there," the man leaned forward from the back seat to point the way, and a moment later again to the mouth of an alley. Hutch didn't pause to park right as he pulled his gun and dashed into the alley, not even aware of the attention he'd drawn with the siren and lights, and the nearby figure that watched until he disappeared into the darkness.
The alley seemed still and empty, and Hutch couldn't hear a thing past the pulse that thudded in his ears. "Starsky?" he tried softly, cautiously moving forward.
A slight shift of shadows to one side. Hutch focused on it at once. "Starsk?" he tried again. The quiet moan sounded just as he nearly tripped over something.
A blue Adidas.
He was holstering his gun even as he crouched and hollered over his shoulder for Huggy to call an ambulance. Dimly, he heard the acknowledgement, but by then his eyes had accustomed to the darkness and he saw his partner, and everything else became unimportant.
Starsky was curled up behind the trashcan, his face pale and damp and his eyes closed. His breaths came in shallow gasps, each one a struggle. And even his arms wrapped around his body couldn't hide the blood that stained his shirt and coat and the ground under him.
"Oh, God," Hutch breathed. You wouldn't really take him now, would you?
The horror froze him for only a second, then he deliberately forgot it. "Starsky?" he said softly, slipping a hand under matted curls to feel the forehead for fever. The skin was clammy with shock, but Starsky stirred at his touch. Hutch slid his hand down to cradle the sagging head, instead. "You with me, partner?"
Starsky roused a little and squinted at him, trying to focus. "'utch?"
"Yeah, buddy, right here." Hutch's other hand slid down to the bloody clothes, gently checking for injury.
"Hutch?" The voice had gained strength and Starsky was looking directly at him now.
"Yeah, I'm here. It's all right, don't try to talk." His hand found what it was looking for, and Starsky suddenly gave a weary gasp. Hutch cursed himself.
"Sorry, buddy. It's all over now, we'll get you some help." He heard Huggy conversing with their guide in the background, and then the man left. Absently, Hutch hoped Huggy had paid him triple what they promised. Starsky's eyes were still tightly shut against the pain, and all the blond's attention refocused on that. He pulled his hand away from Starsky's side, ignoring the red on it, and instead stroked the dark hair. "Try to relax, Starsk. Easy, slow breaths. It's okay. All okay."
Except it wasn't, not really. Starsky looked terrible, like a frazzled rope being used in a tug of war between his partner and death. And death was winning. And Hutch hadn't exactly been trustworthy himself of late. He cleared the lump in his throat.
"Starsk, I'm sorry," he murmured.
That drew the injured man's attention, as pain-filled blue eyes turned back to him, questioning.
"I know it was a stupid prank I pulled on you. I don't know why I did it... I just... you used to tell me back at the Academy that it was just part of being friends. I never really did anything like that before, and it was fun. Made me...feel good. I didn't think it could hurt you...not like that." That was true. Maybe he had wanted to push a little, see how far he was allowed to go, but he hadn't wanted to go that far. Real sorrow lit his voice. "I'm sorry. You know I didn't mean it, Starsk."
Well, maybe Starsky didn't, but how
could he not? Hutch had never, ever had a friend that close before, and he
wasn't always sure what to do with one, but he'd always thought Starsky had
somehow known that.
The dark blue eyes got soft. Forgiveness and understanding. Of course he had. "S'okay," Starsky whispered. "Y'always had a rotten sense o'humor."
Hutch felt himself smile shakily. That was true; Starsky was often the only one who seemed to get it at all. Hutch suddenly wondered how much of that was Starsky's own warped personality and how much of it was one of his subtle ways of caring for his partner. And then he decided he didn't want to know.
The thought engrossed him enough that he missed the sounds at the entrance of the alley, and only Starsky's eyes widening and his hard jerk on Hutch's arm made him react as he rolled away, avoiding the bullet that hit the pavement where he'd been kneeling. He came up with gun drawn, and got the next shot in. The shooter went down, and the narrow alley kept the two behind him from getting past him quickly enough to react. They'd seemed to start to try anyway--and then they saw Hutch's face. Two more guns clattered to the ground.
Hutch spared his partner a quick glance, noting with concern that Starsky's action had cost him strength he didn't have and made the pain flare unbearably. His face was scrunched together in an effort to breathe.
"Be right back, Starsk," Hutch murmured regretfully, then pushed himself up to hurry and cuff the bad guys and check on Huggy.
The pain was excruciating, lapping at his soul and awareness and sanity. It squeezed a tear out of his eyes as he tried to focus on controlling it, but he was failing. It seemed like it would never end.
Vaguely, he felt Hutch leave his side, and the loneliness made the load nearly unbearable. It took away his external focus and the only support he had in this battle, his stubbornness almost worn away by the relentless fire burning in his side. The outside world faded away into the haze and confusion of his body's agony. Starsky gasped, his fingers curling desperately tightly around the soaked jacket. Another tear escaped. If he wasn't feeling so rotten, he thought inanely, maybe he'd even be sick.
Then, abruptly, a gentle hand unwrapped his clenched fingers and let them clutch instead something warm and yielding. Another touch skimmed his cheek, and he focused on that instead of the pain. Then there was movement around him, and he was pulled away from the cold surface behind his back, against more warmth and softness. The hand he was clinging to didn't let go, but another one brushed through his hair, against his face, and he followed it mentally. It was a distraction, but even more, it was love. And he knew who that was.
He buried his face in the warmth, letting the fear go for the first time. He was safe here. The ache in his heart was gone, too, because there was no way the feelings that were wrapped around him like a tangible mantle could ever hurt him. The hand continued over his hair, so gentle, and he centered himself on that, the sharp pain settling into the background. Amazing, but they'd always served to focus each other in everything they did. And when the pain lashed back hard, he dug himself deeper into the comfort, and the soothing strokes moved protectively across his back. With a sigh of true peace, Starsky let himself fade out on that sensation.
Hutch was a firm believer in hands-on care. He was on routine suspension anyway for the shootout in the alley while IA determined it wasn't his fault, a foregone conclusion with Huggy's testimony and the facts to back him up. The revelation that the bank hold-up was a mob job only helped, and gave Hutch a good excuse to argue for ongoing protection for Starsky while in the hospital. But he was grateful for the paid leave because it gave him a chance to do it himself, and to add his own strength and will to Starsky's recovery.
Starsky had been in ICU long enough to determine that there'd been no immediate complications or infections from his surgery, and that the replaced blood supply was bringing his vital signs back to normal. He'd slept deeply through all of those long two days, which was the only reason Hutch reluctantly let himself be limited to visiting hours, but once they moved his partner to a room and the brunet began to wake, Hutch had stayed there. No one had objected. He dared anyone to try.
Huggy had been by, still a little sore but fully back on his feet after being knocked out at the alley, and the captain and a whole series of their friends and colleagues had also stopped in. Starsky had slept through it all, but Hutch told the story over and over with explicit and careful detail. The rest of the time, he sat and thought.
The awakenings grew more frequent, and he would talk while Starsky seemed to listen. The dark eyes were cloudy with drugs and fatigue, but they knew him and calmed when they saw him, and fingers weakly squeezed his own back. He could feel Starsky growing stronger and more aware each time, reacting to his reassurances and presence. And Hutch had never felt so humbled. It went both ways, he knew that, but that didn't make it easier to understand.
The jokes and teasing worked in their own way when played with restraint, and were a welcome lightening to the intensity of their job and friendship. But this was the real thing, and they both knew it. The bond between them healed. All that was left was to make amends for the other consequences of what he'd done.
"Starsky!" Gabe's delighted call drew the squadroom's attention to the figure gingerly making his way through the door his partner held for him. The black detective stepped forward, hand outstretched. "How you doin', man?"
Starsky grinned broadly as he reciprocated with the hand that wasn't in a sling. "Probably better'n you. I hear they stuck you with my partner here for the last week." He indicated the blond behind him with a jerk of the head.
"Oh, he was okay," Gabe smiled back. "Just complained about my car a lot."
"You, too?" Starsky's eyebrows rose and he turned. "What is it with you and cars?" he groused at Hutch.
"Have you seen his car? I'm surprised it runs," Hutch shot back with mock indignation.
"Like the squash, huh?" Starsky nodded knowingly. His grin just widened as Hutch sputtered.
"Starsky, welcome back!" That was Todesco, followed by Eney.
"Heard you saved Hutch's life--"
"--managed to stop a mob hit at the same time. Not bad, Sarge."
The accolades came from all around, honest admiration and praise for a fellow officer's good work. Starsky's playfulness disappeared as he sought out his partner in the crowd, staring at him with wide eyes. Did you do this?
Hutch just smiled at him contentedly. Me? It was you, mushbrain.
Starsky laughed. Maybe he had done most of what they said, but no one would've known if Hutch hadn't have apparently told everyone in exaggerated detail. Starsky would probably never live the story down. And for just this one time, it felt great.
Judging from Hutch's expression, his partner felt exactly the same way.
Written in 1998