Unpublished wallow! Comments on this story can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org and will be forwarded to the author.
A Slice of Comfort
Hutch's voice came out harsh with worry, and he instantly softened it. He had no idea what shape he'd find his partner in, but it wouldn't be good, and he had no desire to cause further distress.
There was a slight sound of movement, and as Hutch's eyes adjusted to the gloom of the small cell, he saw the vague shape in one corner. Hutch moved toward it with relief.
The figure only huddled closer, trying to press itself into the wall. Hutch jolted to a stop, swallowing hard. Dear God, what had happened?
"Starsk," he whispered, moving slowly forward again. "It's me. It's Hutch. You're safe now."
Now that he was closer, he could see the tremors that shook Starsky, weary shivers of shock, maybe, or exhaustion. He hoped to God it wasn't fear. Hutch was close enough to reach out and touch now, but his partner hadn't reacted to his voice, his presence, his identity with anything but an obvious desire to get away. Starsky's knees were drawn up to his chest and he was curled into an impossibly small ball, eyes shut tight and head tucked close to his body.
Hutch's stomach wrenched to see his best friend like that, and he wanted nothing more than to hold and comfort and help. But he wasn't willing to force himself on Starsky and increase his distress. Instead, he stopped where he was and crouched down, eye level with the brunet.
Hutch couldn't keep from touching, though, and already regretting the reaction he knew he'd get, he stretched out a hand to gently stroke through the dirty hair.
Starsky's face twisted and he tried to pull away from the contact, but he had nowhere left to go. Instead, he curled up a little more and shivered harder, lips forming a soundless, "No."
Hutch continued the slow, soothing strokes, then gently shifted his hand lower to cradle Starsky's cheek.
"Starsky, it's just me. It's Hutch. I won't hurt you, babe. I came to help--I want to take you home. Doesn't that sound good?"
If anything, Starsky's face grew more strained. Hutch's fingers never slowed their movement, releasing every bit of compassion he felt into his words and that simple touch.
"It's me, partner. It's me. I'm with you now, and I'm going to take care of you. Please, Starsk, take it easy."
The tremors had stopped, but that seemed to be more resignation than anything. Starsky was locking himself away from whatever horrors he'd expected, his body rigid.
Hutch didn't budge, but his fingers curled around the cold, stubbled chin. "Starsk, can you hear me? You're safe now, I promise. I've got you. Do you know it's me? It's Hutch."
"No. H-Hutch's dead."
Oh, God, the defiant pain in that voice. Hutch's heart reacted to it before he even understood the words--what, dead? Those . . . They hadn't paid enough for what they'd done. But that was useless anger now. All that mattered now was right in front of him.
His voice grew even more tender. "I'm not dead, Starsk. They just told you that to get to you. I don't know how they made you believe it, but it's not true." His thumb began a slow caress of Starsky's cheekbone, trying to soothe as with his words. "Partner, look at me. I'm right here. I came to get you out of here. Please, let me help you. Starsk, please. Won't you trust me one more time?"
"Never stopped," was the hoarse, unintentional answer.
Hutch nearly shivered in relief. He hadn't ever given this much before, tried so hard, and the need to help was almost unbearable. "Then open your eyes for me, pal, please. Do that one thing for me. Let me help." He was nearly whispering, his voice was so soft.
There was no response for a long time, only Hutch's continuing soothing motions. Then, finally, Starsky obeyed, hesitantly at first, then all at once staring at him with eyes rounded with anguish and vulnerability. And Hutch realized then the cost of that act of trust, for if it'd been betrayed, it would've destroyed what was left of the fragile bridge to his partner.
"Starsk," he said thickly, suddenly choked up. "It's all over now. You're safe. You're safe now."
Starsky just stared at him, eyes impossibly huge, trying to figure out whether he was real or not.
Hutch put his desperate soul into every word. "It's really me, Starsky. I'm here. I'm here now and I'm not leaving without you." His hand went back to cradling Starsky's cheek, gently willing its solidity into Starsky.
Almost soundless, and two parts disbelief and devastation to one part hope. Hutch dared to slide a little closer, venturing his other hand to Starsky's knee. "Yeah," he breathed. "Yeah, it's me. I'm here. I'm not dead."
Starsky's gaze leapt around Hutch's face as if checking every detail to memory, but then always returned to his eyes. And the brimming compassion he found there must have caught something on fire in him, because his eyes flickered briefly.
"Starsky? Please, trust me that I'm really here. You're with me, safe."
"Hutch?" Still no strength, but two parts hope now.
"Yeah, partner, it's me. I'm sorry I took so long," Hutch whispered. Then, carefully, he sidled up to right in front of Starsky and tugged experimentally at his knee.
Starsky was no longer resisting, but he seemed frozen, helpless to act.
That was all the invitation Hutch needed. His hand slipped off Starsky's face and onto his shoulder, and he eased his now-yielding partner close to him, away from those cold walls that oozed malevolence, as he'd been longing to do from the first moment he'd seen Starsky. And Starsky came, pressing hard against Hutch as if trying to get as close to him, as deeply into the shelter of his arms as possible. He was nearly limp in Hutch's grasp, molded to his body, but one hand twisted fiercely in Hutch's shirt, hanging on, and he had buried his face in Hutch's neck.
"That's it, partner. It's all gonna be okay now," Hutch murmured, heart breaking and mending all at once. He rocked gently, cupping the curly head in one hand. "It's all right, I've got you. I won't let go, I promise. You're safe with me, Starsk. You're safe. I'm here. . ." He felt the hot wetness on his neck, silent tears of misery and relief, and held on harder, guarding, surrounding, comforting. "Just rest now, babe," he whispered. "I'll take care of you." And then he fell silent, carding his fingers through the matted, dark hair, rubbing the broad back, occasionally just resting his hand on the nape of his partner's neck, slowly swaying back and forth.
Long after the tears ran their course, neither of them moved. Hutch finally asked, "Are you hurt anywhere?"
A long hesitation, as if time was needed to make sense of his words, then a slight shift of the other's face against his skin. No.
"Okay," Hutch said softly, "but let me check ya out anyway, huh?" He took the lack of reaction for assent, and freed one hand to run along limbs on one side, then the other. The dark eyes had shown no sign of head injury before, and Hutch had been unconsciously monitoring the strong heartbeat and breathing ever since Starsky had flowed into his arms. Nor could his partner's ribs be bothering him if the way he had crushed himself against Hutch was any indication. For now, Hutch was willing to accept that as enough. As much as it might've been a good idea, he didn't think either of them would be able to stand the intrusion of a hospital check-up at the moment.
Besides, apparently mental pain had been the weapon of choice, and that'd done more than enough damage.
Hutch swallowed. "It's okay, Starsk, you're doin' great. I'm gonna take you home now. Ready to get out of here?"
A harder, more immediate nod this time. Yes.
Hutch smiled a little. "Good. You think you can walk?"
Starsky clung closer to him, his grip on Hutch almost frantic, though Hutch couldn't tell if it was the fear of losing him or of having to move, leaving the cell's confines.
"Easy, easy," Hutch soothed. "We'll do it together. You're safe out there with me, I promise, and I'm not leaving you no matter what, okay?"
A relieved sigh.
Hutch's eyes stung. "C'mon, buddy, let's get you up. The sooner we get out of here, the sooner we get home."
Rising was a slow struggle, but Hutch forgot the parts of him that had gone to sleep as Starsky wavered on his feet. Only exhaustion? Or maybe the long cramped position? Or something more?
Exhaustion, Hutch decided from the tone. Mental and physical, no doubt. He pulled Starsky's arm over his shoulder and slid his other arm around the protruding ribs. Way too thin--he wouldn't tease Starsky about his diet for a month, Hutch silently vowed. Out loud, he only said, "Slow and easy. This way, partner."
It was a long walk down the hall and out of that torture chamber, but Starsky's head remained resting in the hollow of the blond's neck, uncurious as to their surroundings, and Hutch kept a light hand on the curls to keep it there. There was no need to add to the traumatic memories, nor for Starsky to see the evidence of Hutch's entry. Dobey would take care of the clean-up.
"It's okay, Starsky. No more. All the bad guys are gone, I took care of 'em." Just a shudder for an answer. He squeezed the hand that hung over his shoulder. Then they were outside, and Starsky tensed, burrowing closer against him to escape the bright light. Only his tenacity and Hutch's insistence were keeping him on his feet now, Hutch knew, and he was grateful when they reached the car. After a moment's hesitation, he piled in with Starsky, not willing to let go for a moment. Not while Starsky was so rocky and Hutch was so scared.
He disentangled them despite Starsky's reluctance to let him move an inch away, but he finally ended up at the wheel, and Starsky curled up on the seat by him, head on his leg.
Hutch called in, telling his angry captain the bare minimum and cutting off the lecture. He wouldn't care if he got it later, but now it was taking up precious time. Dobey wouldn't be able to argue with the end result, anyway, and should've already guessed Hutch's inevitable actions. They had required no thought at all.
Then he started up the car and draped his right arm over Starsky, anchoring his partner to him. He drove one-handedly, feeling Starsky finally, a tiny bit, begin to relax in his hold.
"Almost home, partner. Soon. Then you can rest."
Still no answer. Despair provided its own form of adrenalin, and now that security and peace were taking its place, Starsky's energy had apparently bottomed out. The only sign of any remaining strength was the deliberate way he'd nestled against Hutch as much as possible, pressing himself close as if to shut out the rest of the world beyond his partner.
Hutch rubbed at Starsky's arm, hand, unclenching each finger that entwined in his pants, massaging each one, then the knuckles and the back of the hand, his motions purposefully distracting. Starsky's breathing, harsh with distress when they'd been walking, slowed too, lulled by the warm calm in the car and in Hutch's touch.
Venice was closer, but Hutch headed for Westchester for the added reassurance of the familiarity of Starsky's place. The longer ride at least gave the brunet a chance to really relax, and Hutch almost regretted disturbing him once they arrived. But Starsky listened and responded to Hutch's gentle prods and words, and they made it inside.
Hutch struggled with the key, one arm around Starsky's waist for support. He finally got the door open, and eased them inside. "Home. It's really over." Hutch smiled, looking into the pale face and bruised eyes that stared at him.
And then the eyes slid shut and Starsky quietly collapsed.
"Hey!" Hutch protested faintly, quickly readjusting for the weight. Shifting his position, he got an arm under Starsky's knees and lifted with a grunt. "It's okay. We'll get you to bed and everything'll be fine. You're just tired." He was babbling now, worried that he'd missed something, that they should've gone to the hospital. But how could they have, with Starsky so close to shattering? There had been no options, but that didn't help his panic now. "Just hold on," he pleaded, knowing he wasn't heard.
Into the bedroom, where he sagged with his burden onto the bed, and then he was working carefully, frantically, checking vitals, reflexes, pupils. Nothing abnormal, except for the white face and too-thin body. . .
"'Course," Hutch muttered, annoyed with himself. He finished the stripping he'd begun and slid the unresisting form of his friend between the covers, putting an extra blanket under the feet to elevate them a little. Then he ran out to the kitchen. Five minutes later he was back with a lukewarm bowl of chicken noodle soup; thank God for Campbell's. He set it down on the endtable and sat on the edge of the bed.
"Starsk?" he called softly, curling the now-lax fingers around his hand. At least they were warmer now. . .
Starsky suddenly started awake, eyes terrified and confused and--God help him--still defiant.
"Easy, easy," Hutch's voice rose in order to gain his attention. "Listen to me, Starsk. You're home. You're safe. And I'm fine, right here with you. Take it easy, huh?" His grip changed from holding the shoulders down to rubbing them, as frenetic eyes found him and stuck.
"Hutch?" Not as hollow as before, but still scared of being disappointed.
"Hutch. . . "
"Shh, I know." One of Hutch's hands had slid down Starsky's arm and stayed there as he felt the pulse slowly even out. With his other hand, he went back to the stroking, distracting, soothing. "Brought you some soup. Think you can get it down?"
A weary nod, but the eyes hadn't moved from his face. Hutch wondered fleetingly what would take more time for Starsky to really accept, that Hutch was safe or that he himself was.
"Good," he simply answered, smiling for encouragement, and then did the rearranging and the feeding. Starsky's gaze followed his every movement.
The soup brought some color into the thin face, and Starsky's appetite despite his weakness confirmed Hutch's suspicions as to the partial cause for the collapse. Starvation did that to you, especially together with exhaustion and emotional trauma. Hutch silently cursed the dead again.
A bath wouldn't have been remiss, but it could wait. Starsky was barely willing to let him go long enough to bring some juice, despite his obvious thirst. Finally, Hutch pulled down the blinds and kicked off his shoes, climbing into the bed. He wasn't tired, not in body, but it wasn't his own rest he was trying for.
"C'mere, partner," he whispered, and no other encouragement was needed as Starsky huddled up against him, just as he had in that stinking hellhole of a room. The curl-covered head settled comfortably into the crook of Hutch's neck as if it belonged there, his weight on Hutch's chest, not so needy this time, just relaxing into the knowledge of his friend's substantiality. Still getting used to the comfort and love after all the pain and cruelty. Hutch sighed. "Wanna tell me about it?" he gently invited.
There was a long pause and several swallows he could feel against his neck. "They told me you were d-dead," Starsky finally scraped out.
"I know," Hutch soothed. "But I'm not, I'm right here." He began rubbing, distracting again, over and over, hypnotic circles on Starsky's back.
"But they h-had a shirt. . . your shirt. . . an' blood an' bullet holes. . . "
Hutch's breath caught. He hadn't even noticed something missing. But he didn't let his motion change, still firm and steady.
"They said it was. . . my fault for. . . not cooperatin'. But I couldn't give 'em wh-what they wanted. . . oh, God, I would've if I could've. . ."
"What did they want, Starsk?" Hutch asked softly.
Another hard swallow. "S-Stryker freed. Said it wasn't up to me but they. . . wouldn't let me sleep or eat or. . . 'n they said they'd killed ya. Slow an' a-alone--"
Hutch pulled him as close as he could, feeling the catches in the other's chest, deep down in his own, and all that suffering. . . No wonder Starsky had been so close to the edge. Hutch didn't know if he'd have had the strength to survive intact the same test.
"That's enough, you don't have to tell me any more," he shushed. All that pain because of love for him. But love would help cure, too. "Shhh. Listen to me, it's all over. It's gonna be okay now." He counted the ragged breaths. "Slow and easy, buddy. I'm right here and it's all over. Starsk?"
Starsky had a white-knuckled hold on his shirt again, but his gasps were easing. Hutch had forgotten the touch, and his hand moved up to the curls now damp with sweat, then down underneath to the neck, massaging the tension and the memories away. There were only intermittent shudders of reaction now.
"That's it," Hutch breathed in relief. "Calm down. Just rest now."
Slowly, muscle by muscle, Starsky gave himself over to Hutch's mute reassurance and shielding hold, relaxing until, finally, he was dead weight in Hutch's arms. Surrendering the fear and anguish to his protector's insistent pull.
Hutch wouldn't have heard the muffled sigh against his neck except that Starsky was all he was tuned to at the moment. It almost made him smile, the understatement, except that it was as sincere as he'd ever heard Starsky.
"Missed you, too," he quietly echoed. "Thank God you're safe." And then he held on for dear life. Literally.
A minute later, Starsky was asleep and Hutch remained protectively wrapped around him, just beginning to relax himself as each soft, easy breath brushed against his skin. The worst really was over. But even more amazing, to be loved like that. . .
Who saved whom?
Written in 1998