This story first appeared in the zine, That's What Friends Are For (1996). 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: email@example.com and will be forwarded to the author.
That's What Friends Are For
K Hanna Korossy
The ride back to the station was endless. Hutch had urged his partner to let him take Prudholm in the black-and-white, but Starsky had stubbornly refused. Hutch didn't want to leave the two of them alone, so he finally joined them in the Torino.
Prudholm took full advantage of his captive audience, taunting Starsky all the way back despite Hutch's threats. By the time they pulled into the station, Starsky's knuckles were white on the steering wheel. Booking Prudholm and getting him out of sight didn't seem to help, either, as Starsky finished up the paperwork and filed everything on his desk in tight-lipped silence, ignoring the speculative glances Hutch directed his way. Hutch let him be, risking only a request for a ride home at the end of the day, which was granted with a mute nod.
The short trip home was no more cheerful than the office had been, and Hutch didn't feel any closer to breaking through Starsky's reserve. He didn't really want to let his partner go home and try to deal with his feelings alone, but Starsky remained adamantly withdrawn. He was usually the one who got Hutch to open up, and Hutch wasn't even sure how he did that - or how to return the favor himself.
"Starsk, you wanna come in for a beer?" he asked, pausing with his hand on the door handle as though the idea had just occurred to him. Please, he added wordlessly.
Starsky ignored the message they both knew he understood. "Not tonight," he said tersely.
Hutch caught his eyes and held them for a moment, compassion meeting steely defiance. The steel gave first. "I'll see ya' tomorrow," Starsky said a little more softly, his gaze now riveted to the steering wheel.
Hutch sighed quietly and got out, the Torino roaring away before he had a chance to say anything else. "He's hurting," he whispered to himself as he watched the red car disappear around the corner. So what am I gonna do about it?
The next day was almost as bad. Starsky came in late, red-eyed and edgy, looking for all the world as though he'd spent the night in front of the television. Which, speculated Hutch, he probably had. Every attempt at levity, or even conversation, were all stonily rebuffed, every glance and touch ignored, or even... repelled? Hutch was beginning to get confused. He knew his partner had been pushed close to his limits by first Lonnie's death and then Prudholm's "revenge," but why was that coming between them? Starsky was acting as though they were complete strangers. I'm not gonna let you do this, buddy. Not to me, not to us. He was surprised at the vehemence of his own thoughts, and then smiled to himself ruefully. Catchin' Starsky's mother-hen complex...
His worries began to ease within a few days as things started getting back to normal and Starsky appeared to get his act together. Hutch had humored his reluctance to return immediately to the streets, the days of boring but safe paperwork seeming to steady his partner. The initial apathy and sleeplessness of the first few days also gradually faded away. Starsky wasn't as cheerful as he used to be, but neither was he depressed, and Hutch accepted the change. God knows, he himself wasn't the wide-eyed Minnesota farm boy who had walked through the Academy doors a lifetime ago, either. He had always been amused by how Starsky had somehow managed to keep most of his childlike optimism despite everything, but if that had to go, so be it. But then why was something still bothering him?
Hutch finally put it out of his mind. Starsky was better at rebounding than anybody else he knew; time would surely do what he somehow couldn't for his partner.
Everything finally seemed all right again. The last few cases were all unexciting, simply requiring legwork and time, which Starsky was uncharacteristically willing to give. He seemed to put all of himself into the work, often beating Hutch to the paperwork and impressing Dobey to no end. If anything, Hutch found it easier to work with this new, taciturn version of his partner who didn't want to stop every half hour to eat or go off on tangents about the latest movie he'd seen or the new hobby he'd discovered.
And yet... Hutch should've been happy but he wasn't. Starsky had gotten rid of all the habits Hutch had often and loudly complained about, but that he now found he sorely missed. The stakeouts and patrols were quiet now, and his partner's lack of enthusiasm rubbed off on Hutch. They were routine, mechanical... boring. He sighed to himself. This was what you wanted, isn't it? Isn't it? At any rate, friends had to accept each other as they were. So... if this was what Starsky would be now, he would reconcile himself to it. He had to.
The days had begun to blend into one another. Another day, another dollar, Hutch thought moodily. He glanced over at his partner. Starsky was watching his side of the street, just like they were supposed to and just like they always had... except different. Hutch almost preferred a difficult case over the endless days of silent patrols. Although Starsky didn't seem to mind...
The radio came to life and announced a 211 a few blocks from them. Hutch roused himself to respond, then put on the Mars light and the siren as Starsky sped up and turned them around. He waited tensely as the car rounded the last corner to pull up not far from a small grocery store. A warning began to play in the back of his mind. Same kind of neighborhood, same kind of store... The two masked men who came running out clinched it, and the uneasiness solidified into dread. He glanced over at his partner but saw only the stubbornly set jaw. Deja vu; he sees it, too. Oh, God, please, don't let it be.
"You all right?" Hutch said softly. He had to ask.
Starsky stared at him for a moment before briefly nodding. He was the picture of efficiency and control - but Hutch was looking at his eyes. Starsky scrambled out of the car, and Hutch followed, leaden weight settling in his stomach as he realized that he didn't know the person those turbulent eyes belonged to. So help me, buddy, you better make it through this okay so I can beat some sense into you tonight.
He was already a few steps behind Starsky as he set out in pursuit, down a side road and into a back alley. Starsky disappeared around the corner. A second later, Hutch could hear him yell "Police!", followed quickly by a shot. Then Hutch was rounding the bend. The dead end was the first thing he noticed, the next being that the two men had stopped and turned to face Starsky, one raising his gun to shoot. Starsky, however, stood paralyzed, his Automatic aimed but wavering, his face contorted. He had both of us fooled, was all Hutch's mind had time to connect before his arrival caught the attention of the armed felon, and the gun swung automatically toward him. Experience told him he didn't have time to bring up his own gun to fire, and he began to dive aside, expecting to hear the Smith & Wesson covering him. Instead, the suspect's shot flew by him, grazing his arm before hitting the wall behind him. He was already twisting his body as he fell, bringing up his own gun, seeing in that split second that Starsky hadn't moved even though the felon's gun was now turning toward him. Hutch's revolver stopped it.
The other suspect didn't put up much of a fight at the sight of his buddy's bleeding shoulder; Hutch had them both searched and in handcuffs within minutes. He had deliberately ignored his partner, concentrating on eliminating the threat first, but now concern replaced anger as he saw Starsky leaning against the wall bonelessly, his face ashen. Looks like he's going to faint, Hutch thought as he hurried forward and eased the gun from the limp fingers. Starsky looked up at him, the pain keen on his face now.
"Starsk, you okay?" Stupid question.
"Hutch...I'm sorry. Please..." The voice was a plea.
For what - help? Ah partner, I guess I really missed it, didn't I? Hutch swore at himself. Deep down he had known it all along, had let himself play along with Starsky's ignore-the-problem-and-it'll-go-away game. Except problems like this didn't just go away.
Starsky was staring past Hutch, down the alley at the handcuffed gunmen. "Coulda' gotten you killed..."
Hutch leaned against the wall next to his friend and blew out a deep sigh, closing his eyes to shut out a world that had gotten very messy. It was his fault; that stupid blind faith had won out over common sense even though he had known Starsky was in no shape to be backing him up. Even partners needed a break sometime. He's usually telling me to take it easy...
Hutch's mind registered that a cruiser was approaching. He made Starsky sit down before he went to fetch the felons to turn them over to the officers, assuring the patrolmen that he would be in later to file his report. Some things were more urgent than others, and he wasn't about to give Starsky a chance to bury his feelings again. He answered the policemen's questions impatiently; no, his arm was fine. Yes, Starsky was there but he was busy. No, he'd take care of it. They finally finished, and he absently wound his jacket around his bleeding arm as he watched them pull away. Then he turned back.
Duty was done; now it was time to pick up the pieces. Hutch entered the alley again to find Starsky exactly as he had left him, hunched despondently against the wall. He knelt by his partner, and the pain he saw in other's eyes hurt far worse than his arm did. "Come on, buddy," he said gently, pulling Starsky up with him and directing his now-passive friend to the car. "It's time to go home."
He drove the Torino, talking quietly to Dobey on the radio while Starsky slouched miserably in the front seat, oblivious. Hutch hung up the mike, having temporarily satisfied Dobey's questions, and glanced over at his partner but stayed silent. Okay, I'll leave you alone for the moment, but then we have to do something about this, about you... but what?
As he parked the Torino in front of Starsky's apartment, his partner suddenly bolted from the car and up the steps, leaving the door open behind him. Hutch frowned, pausing a moment to lock up, then ran up after him.
The apartment door stood open, and Hutch closed it before following the sounds coming from the bathroom. Starsky was bent over the toilet, heaving dryly on an empty stomach. Hutch moved forward to help without thinking, only to be stopped by an angry, "Don't!" and an upraised hand. He hesitated briefly, helplessly, then moved out into the living room.
The pain in his arm had dulled, but now it throbbed a reminder to him and he went into the kitchen to see to it. He found a clean cloth over the sink, then pulled off his jacket and shirt to survey the damage. It didn't look too bad, the bleeding already stopped, so he only had to clean and bandage it. Performing that chore one-handed proved to be more challenging than he thought, however.
He was deeply engrossed in the task when the cloth was suddenly whisked from his hand. Startled, he let himself be led to the couch and watched silently as Starsky collected a first aid kit from the bathroom and sat down across from him. His friend was pale and studiously avoided meeting his eyes, but the touch was characteristically gentle. Hutch almost thought he could close his eyes and forget that the last few weeks had ever happened. Except for why they were here in the first place, with Starsky fixing his arm.
Starsky finished applying the antiseptic and carefully wound a bandage around the injury, then sat back.
"I don't think it needs stitches," he finally said softly.
"No," Hutch agreed, gingerly putting his shirt back on.
Starsky hesitated. "Does it hurt?"
Oh, Starsk... "No, it's okay." Hutch studied his friend's face, trying to catch the downcast eyes. "How are you?"
Starsky shrugged and moved over to flop down on opposite end of the couch. "Musta' been the pizza I had for breakfast." The voice was one of forced casualness.
Frustration rose again as Hutch strode over to face his partner. "You know that's not what it was. Your body's just being more honest than you are. Now are you going talk or what?" Give!
Starsky sighed in annoyance and picked up a magazine. "Talk about what?" No.
Hutch was too tired to play that game anymore. He yanked the magazine away, then grabbed his partner's arm to make Starsky turn and face him. "Come on, Starsky! First you have to shoot a kid in self-defense," he saw the wince but pushed on, "then a nutcase goes around killing people and blaming you for it, and now you almost get both of us killed and you don't know what there is to talk about?!"
The anger slipped for a moment and the lost look wrenched at Hutch. You and I both know this is just an act, buddy. You're only playing mad so you don't have to admit it hurts.
Starsky recovered himself and argued back half-heartedly, "That's old news. It's over with, just forget it."
Hutch lowered his voice. "Uh-uh. You know that's not the way it works. You were ready to resign over this..." Starsky opened his mouth, but Hutch wouldn't let him interrupt, "You fooled me for a while, but it was pretty obvious today that this thing is still tearing you apart." Us apart.
No response. The silence in the room was stifling.
Hutch rubbed his eyes tiredly for a moment before turning to Starsky again. "What's it gonna take to make you talk to me?! Next time one of us could wind up in the hospital or even dead, and then it'll be too late. I need you, partner, but I need you whole, not torturing yourself over something you couldn't help."
Starsky straightened to meet his partner's gaze, the blue eyes anguished and suspiciously bright. "It's no good, Hutch. This isn't why I wanted to be a cop. First Lonnie, then Tinker and Forest, and today... you... It was my fault." The tone was bitter, but this time the anger was directed inward.
Hutch's breath caught at the admission. He mentally kicked himself for not having realized earlier how much guilt Starsky had been carrying around with him. No wonder he's been so withdrawn. And people say I'm the bleeding heart...
"Just how do you figure that?" Hutch asked more calmly than he felt. "What could you have done to change any of it?"
"Maybe I could have gotten the gun away from the kid?" Starsky offered, his eyes desperate.
Hutch stood up, walked two steps, turned back sharply. "Do you hear yourself?" he asked reasonably. "'Maybe.' 'Could have.' Weren't you listening at the trial? Even Lonnie's friends said that you did what you had to do. You had no choice." He paused, then came over to stand in front of his friend.
"Why did you want to become a cop?" he asked suddenly.
"Not to kill people!" Starsky shot back.
"Why?" Hutch pressed.
Starsky was staring at him, almost trembling with the intensity of emotion. Hutch's eyes were locked on his, and for the first time Hutch felt like he was getting through. "Why?" he whispered.
"'Cause..." the words came haltingly. "..things aren't supposed t'be this way. I wanted... I wanted to change that. Help."
Hutch smiled at him gently. "That's exactly what you were doing. You fired because you had to; you had to protect not just yourself, but also all the innocent people around you. It was a rotten situation, but you had no choice." His voice was very soft.
Starsky sank back into the sofa. "Yeah, well, two cops aren't going home to their families anymore because I did what I had to do." The anger was gone, but his voice was dull and lifeless, and that worried Hutch even more. Now what do I say, that's it's all part of the job? What a lousy job.
Hutch sat down on the sofa next to his partner and was silent for a minute. "You know what your problem is, Starsk? You're selfish." He waited a moment for that to register and for his friend to look up at him in surprise. "What you mean is that you would rather that kid had killed you in that alley, and then maybe Prudholm wouldn't have ever been ticked off by anybody else and gone on a killing spree. But if he did, well, that wouldn't have been your problem, it would all be on the next guy's shoulders." Starsky turned away from him but Hutch wasn't about to let him off. "Did it ever occur to you that Prudholm was a ticking time bomb waiting for someone to set him off, and that someone happened to be you? You were just an excuse." Hutch got up and stood in front of his partner but leaned down to make his point. "And you're sitting here wishing that that kid with a gun had blown you away, and maybe me with you. Didn't today teach you anything? That guy was ready to kill both of us today, just like Lonnie had been, and you almost let him."
That touched a nerve and he saw Starsky cringe. Hutch squatted down and placed his hands on the tense shoulders in front of him. "Buddy, sometimes we just don't have a choice. It stinks, but that's the way it is. And I may be selfish, but I'm glad you weren't killed out there."
He had his partner's attention now; Starsky was watching him, thinking it through. You better say it all, Hutchinson, while you're still playing Truth or Dare. He sat back on the coffee table, and this time he was the one who didn't meet his partner's eyes. "Starsk, I'm sorry. I should've been watching out for you, too. I knew something was bothering you, but I left you to deal with it yourself. I should've known you weren't ready."
Starsky's stare was incredulous. "You're sorry! I almost got you killed!" His voice fell. "I'm scared, Hutch," he whispered.
"Of what?" Hutch held his breath.
"Not doing the right thing. Gettin' people hurt." Gettin' you hurt. Hutch could hear it almost as clearly as if it had been spoken.
He smiled at Starsky again, this time with affection. "You idiot, do you hear yourself? You're so busy worrying about everybody else, no wonder you're falling apart. I don't trust anybody else to watch my back the way you do - that's why I want you as my partner."
Starsky slowly raised his head, and a wounded look met an understanding one.
"Still with me?" Hutch asked softly.
"Even after today?" Starsky's voice was cautious.
Hutch allowed himself a small grin. "Nobody'll know but us chickens."
Starsky tried to return the smile but failed. "It's a lousy world sometimes, Hutch."
Hutch nodded. "Yeah, I know. But that's why we got each other, to make it bearable." I know you're not convinced, buddy, but just give it a little time; you'll see it my way.
Starsky's face relaxed and he sighed, seeming to deflate his whole body.
Crisis over. Hutch smiled and patted him on the shoulder. "Dinner's on you tonight," he said, reaching for his jacket.
It took a moment, but Starsky's head came up, and there was a glint of humor in the dark eyes. "Me? Why me?"
"'Cause I can't reach my wallet with my bad arm." It was incredibly lame, but it felt wonderful after all the weeks of solemnity.
Starsky looked suitably indignant as he got up and crossed the room to open the door for Hutch. "Don't gimme that cripple act! Next I suppose you'll be wantin' us to go to one of those rabbit food joints you like."
"Naturally." Hutch was trying hard not to smile as he passed his friend in the doorway.
Starsky slammed the door behind them and casually draped a hand on his friend's shoulder as he lead them down the stairs. "If you think you're gonna get the royal treatment for that scratch..."
The outrage in Hutch's voice was belied by his grin. "Scratch! In case you didn't notice, I was shot..."
Everything was finally back to normal. The way it belonged.
Written in 1995