This story first appeared in the zine, Forvever Friends (1997). Comments on this story can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org and will be forwarded to the author.
They had marched around him, chanting, just as when he first arrived. Only this time there was no fight left in him to yell at them, challenge them. His insides were twisted in agony, the effect of the latest "game" they were playing with him, taking away awareness of everything else. Dimly, the cop part of him knew that things were beginning to wind down, that they had gone full circle and what came next would be the end. The fear that knowledge brought almost drowned out the pain for a moment. Then, gag reflex kicked in, further knotting up his insides, overloading his already weakened system. Oh, God...Hutch, where are you? Please, hurry... Consciousness began to fade, and his last cognizant thought was that he might never wake up again.
Not being able to breathe was what woke him up. Disoriented, for a moment Starsky panicked, terrified at the thought of another session with Marcus' band of sadistic crazies. He wished they'd just kill him and get it over with...
The light touch on his shoulder and a gentle inquiring voice broke the nightmare. Awareness returned, bringing with it memory: Hutch's impossible appearance at the last minute, going to the hospital, then finally home, all while feeling as though he was going crazy, unable to forget or deal with the hellish 24 hours he had just gone through. He might have gotten lost in it, but Hutch hadn't let him, had made him face it, together. And an exhausting but cleansing talk later, he had finally been able to find peace in sleep without dreams, to temporarily forget the nightmare. Even being woken once to get cleaned up and eat a bit hadn't intruded on that peace.
Until he woke up to find that he couldn't breathe.
The voice became more insistent, but he wasn't quite able to make sense of it yet, focused on his struggle for oxygen. Suddenly, he realized that it wasn't his lungs that were the problem, it was his stomach that had twisted so abruptly that it took his breath away. With that revelation also came urgent need. He pushed himself upright as quickly as he could, oblivious to the hand that slipped off his shoulder at the sudden movement, and half-running, half-stumbling, made it to the bathroom just in time.
It didn't take long to purge the little bit that was in his stomach, but it took somewhat longer than that before his stomach registered that fact, as well, and slowly began to unknot, letting him gulp in air as fast as his abused ribs would allow.
A slender arm wrapped around his chest, supporting his ribs, easing their struggle, and a warm hand cupped his forehead to keep his sagging head from resting on the edge of the ceramic bowl. The soft voice also returned to reassure him, over and over. He was amazed how that quiet whisper cut through the pounding in his ears and the harsh sounds being forced out of him. He let himself melt against the physical and mental support, too tired to even be grateful for it, and concentrated on getting some kind of equilibrium back.
When the gasps and coughs slowly died down and his breathing began to steady, awareness of his surroundings slowly returned. Ache, all throughout his body, but sharp in his chest and head. And cold; kneeling on the tile floor, hands clutching the edges of icy ceramic, the only warmth he felt was from the hands wrapped around him and the body close behind him. Exhausted, he settled closer to it, trying to get warm. The other, understanding, drew him close, supporting, warming him. Hutch.
After a moment, Starsky began to stir, increasing awareness and control also bringing embarrassment. Kneeling in the bathroom, resting bonelessly against one's partner, was not the most dignified of positions. Still confused, he tried to frame some excuse or apology while slowly straightening. Hutch beat him to it.
He started to nod but changed his mind when the room began to move too fast and shut his eyes instead. "Yeah. T'rrific."
There was a soft laugh. "C'mon, let's get you back to bed," Hutch said next to his ear. Then, their balance shifted and his partner pulled him upright, but his legs simply didn't have enough starch in them to work on their own. The arm around his chest moved across his back, relentlessly helpful, to draw him closer and take most of his weight. They stopped briefly so that he could rinse his mouth out, then he was guided forward. After a moment, he quit fighting the aid he knew he needed and went along willingly.
Hutch led him back to the bedroom. After gently easing him back down on the bed and covering him, his partner left the room, coming back a moment later with a wet washcloth. He sat down on the edge of the bed. "Warmin' up?" he asked quietly as he ran the washcloth over Starsky's face.
Not quite yet, but he was getting there. "Uh-huh," he answered simply.
"Good." The blond avoided the burned spot on Starsky's cheek, but the other still flinched as he brushed around it. Hutch winced in sympathy. "Sorry. Starsk, lemme put some more of that stuff on your face, huh? Doc said it would make it feel better."
Starsky's eyes were half-closed. "'Kay."
Hutch put the washcloth down on the nightstand and left the room again to find the tube of ointment the doctor had given him. Coming back, he stopped in the doorway for a moment, silently watching.
Starsky's shoulders had tensed up even as he left the room, and now he seemed to be in the slow process of curling up into an increasingly tight ball. The drowsy, relaxed expression was also marred by the tightened jaw, eyes squeezed shut, eyebrows drawn. Hutch almost cringed at the sight.
His partner was one of the strongest men he knew, both in body and spirit. Time after time, Hutch himself had relied on that strength, drawn from it when the world seemed too much for one person to bear alone. And it had never failed him. He could still remember the fear that had followed him for weeks after Forest had kidnapped him, the nameless terror that sapped his strength and invaded his dreams. It took some time for the feeling of vulnerability to fade away. And Starsky had been there for him every step of the way, sometimes to give him the encouragement he needed, sometimes to just listen, and sometimes even to take charge for a while and lead him along like a child. And grown-up, macho, tough Kenneth Hutchinson had learned a lesson those weeks about the maturity of being able to simply accept.
Now, it was his turn to give.
The kidnapping had shaken Starsky more badly than Hutch had ever seen him. Injuries, heartaches, worry all went with the job and could be at least partly prepared for. Even the poisoning, while scaring them both, had had an explanation, a motive they could more or less understand, a situation they could fight. But the senselessness and sadism of the torture and mind games Starsky had undergone at the hands of Marcus' followers was beyond comprehension. It had completely drained all of his reserves, both mental and physical, leaving him scared and hurting in more ways than one. Hutch had been shocked by that realization the moment Starsky had broken down in his arms, back at the old zoo when Hutch had first arrived. Even later, there at Starsky's place, as he'd confronted his partner and the dam had finally broken by cathartic confession, Hutch had felt a little at a loss to deal with the obvious need of his usually so-independent friend.
But now, it had become very simple. For the moment, he had to do everything for his partner. Starsky needed not only physical help, but also, just as badly, a generous supply of love, security, concern, to refill depleted systems. He had surrendered himself completely to the blond's care to be looked after, and Hutch was happy to comply. After the previous two days, maybe it was something they both needed for a while.
Musing abruptly ended, Hutch moved forward again, circling to the side of the bed. At the sound of the soft footfalls, he could see the figure on the bed stiffen. He quickly sat down on the edge of the mattress and took hold of a shoulder. "Starsk?"
The one word brought immediate reaction as the other suddenly went limp, unwinding a little from the fetal position he had been curled in. Hazy blue eyes sought his. "Yeah," Starsky breathed.
Hutch returned the gaze steadily, putting all the force of his reassurance and concern into one look. The other relaxed even further, pain and fear loosening their hold on him. Hutch kept his hand on the shoulder, slowly rubbing it, while with the other he struggled to get the cap off the tube. It wasn't too difficult; he hadn't put the top on very tightly before when he'd treated the burn while Starsky slept. That accomplished, he squeezed a little bit of the clear ointment onto a finger as his left hand slipped down from the shoulder to the wrist, pressing comfortingly.
Starsky held his breath while the finger gently spread the gel on his face, but it was the only sign he gave of awareness. His eyes were closed, hand limp under Hutch's. Treatment finished, Hutch waited for a moment for the breathing to even out again, then put the tube on the nightstand and, deciding to take advantage of his relaxed patient, picked up a roll of gauze and the bowl of water he had fetched for this purpose earlier. Starsky opened his eyes a little at the departure of the warmth, then let them slide shut again, content to let his partner do what he thought best.
Hutch took one slack hand and stretched it across his lap. Starsky's eyes were still shut, so he didn't try to hide his disgust at the sight of the wrists. Both of them had cleaned and tended to rope burns before, an occupational hazard in their line of work, but while he could only imagine that Starsky had been bound during most of his ordeal, at the end they had also hung him up by his already raw wrists. Hutch's anger rekindled at the thought; Starsky's full weight on the ropes had caused them to cut into his flesh, leaving bloody lines across the chafed skin. At the hospital, they had put some antibiotic cream on the wrists, leaving them exposed to air dry, and the nurse had told Hutch that he should wrap them later if possible, but the opportunity hadn't presented itself before.
Now, he took his time, trying to be careful to not cause any further pain. He dabbed gently at the gashes, looking up often to check Starsky's face for reaction. The brows were drawn a little, but Starsky remained relaxed and yielding under Hutch's ministrations. One wrist cleaned, he cut a length of gauze and wrapped it around it as firmly as he could without making it tight. Fixing the end of the gauze with some tape, he laid the hand back down on the bed and took up the other one.
The second wrist was taken care of as efficiently as the first, but this one he didn't replace as quickly. He slowly took the hand in his own, squeezing it lightly as he thanked God once again for the miraculous return of this one being who meant so much to him.
He was surprised when the hand curled around his in response. Starsky had been lying so motionless, breath soft and steady, that Hutch thought he'd drifted off. He looked up into bright eyes that were watching him.
"Hutch?" The voice was soft, almost hesitant.
Hutch's determination to restore the once-strong confidence in that voice grew in response. "Yeah?"
"I don't wanna stay in bed anymore."
Hutch blinked. "Starsk, you need to rest," he argued softly.
The eyes broke away from his own, looking down, and the hand tightened in his own. Hutch suddenly understood that this was not boredom or petulance, but rather somehow important to the other. "Okay," he agreed abruptly.
The downcast gaze flew up again, relieved and grateful.
Hutch stood up, keeping the hand firmly in his own as he gripped the opposite shoulder and pulled the other up into a sitting position. He paused a moment to bundle the blanket around Starsky's shoulders, then drew him slowly out into the living room and onto the couch. He was pleased to see that his friend's steps were steadier this time.
Initially, adrenalin and fatigue that masked the pain had enabled Starsky to do most things under his own steam, even when Hutch had wanted to help. It had made getting through to his partner all the more difficult for Hutch -- and all the more overwhelming when it happened. But since then, the full force of the ordeal his body had undergone had come crashing down on Starsky, bringing with it exacting pain and enervation that he was only now slowly beginning to overcome. The nausea that still refused to abate didn't help, either, although the doctor insisted that wouldn't last. But now, perhaps in a day or two, Hutch knew his partner would be getting up and around on his own again. Walls of independence and self-control would come up again, and once more they'd go back to expressing their love in the many subtle ways that had developed between them: the looks, the touches, the unsaid. Open tenderness would again be tucked away till summoned once more by need.
But not just yet.
Hutch got his partner settled on the couch, curled up at one end against several pillows, wrapped in the blanket. "Comfortable?" he asked, smiling.
Starsky grinned back at him, tired but happy, looking almost like his old self.
Hutch, still not finished, headed off into the kitchen, calling over his shoulder, "Be right back."
Pots clanking and cabinets shutting were the only sounds in the apartment for a few minutes. Starsky tried to force himself to relax and ignore the pain that somehow was much more evident when he was alone. It seemed so simple when Hutch was there, both to shut out the aching discomfort and the lurking fear. But alone, he still had a way to go toward being able to handle the aftereffects of the kidnapping by himself. It had gotten better; the initial panic and overload was gone. As for the rest, he could slowly feel the return of emotional control and the strength to deal with things, both physically and mentally, carefully nurtured by one selflessly devoted partner who had long since gone above and beyond the call of friendship. And Starsky, drained beyond the ability to do anything else, unashamedly accepted.
Hutch finally returned, bringing with him a bowl and spoon and a mug. He sat down on the coffee table by Starsky and placed the bowl down beside him. The mug he held out. "Here, drink this."
Starsky grimaced, the scene in the bathroom still fresh in his mind. "Hutch..."
His partner knew what he was thinking. "It's okay, Starsk, I think it'll stay down this time. The doctor said the drugs were wearing off; it should be getting better." His eyes reflected his sincere empathy. "Besides, you're already dehydrated. We need to get some fluids in you."
The "we" didn't escape Starsky, but for appearance's sake he made another face. "What is it?"
"Hot tea with lemon."
Starsky was a coffee drinker but he had always liked tea when he was sick, particularly on a queasy stomach. Trust Hutch to remember. Grudgingly, he accepted the mug, the long fingers not stirring from under his own until both of them were sure his hands were steady enough to handle the task.
The hot tea warmed him going down, unexpectedly relaxing his cramped insides. In between sips, he watched his partner as Hutch busied himself with the bowl. "'N what's that?" he finally ventured to ask.
Hutch looked up. "Chicken soup. Huggy brought it by while you were asleep."
The prospect of food was still not inviting, but he didn't argue it, still content to let Hutch lead. After all, he supposed he did need to eat after not keeping much of anything down for the last two days. He finished the last of the tea and traded the mug for the spoon. It was slow going, having to concentrate to keep his hand steady, but Hutch didn't seem impatient to be holding the bowl. In fact, he began to talk conversationally on everyday topics, not really holding Starsky's attention but distracting him just enough.
When he finished the soup, Hutch broke off and took the empty containers back to the kitchen, and returned to find Starsky sitting up on the middle of the couch. He opened his mouth to ask, then noticed Starsky deliberately not looking at him. Oh. Hutch's expression softened as he sat down at the end of the sofa, then carefully drew his friend back to lean against him. Starsky wouldn't have asked, was too self-restrained already to do so, but Hutch knew. And whatever Starsky needed, he was all too happy to give. He carefully began massaging the slumped shoulders, trying to fully relax strained tendons. The other responded by leaning against him expectantly. Hutch obliged, shifting so he could reach the whole back, gently rubbing the abused muscles.
He continued the activity for a long time, until his own hands began to get tired and the other felt completely limp. Hutch shifted again, letting his partner rest against him once more. After a few moments, he spoke up softly. "Starsk?"
"Mmm?" The response sounded half-asleep. Hutch grinned. Maybe that degree of lethargy was best for what he wanted to talk about.
"Dobey called before. He said Marcus had been sentenced to seven consecutive life sentences, and that the followers we arrested are gonna take a hard fall, too."
Starsky's head rolled to one side, listening, but he remained relaxed. Hutch took that as a positive sign and went on, still keeping his voice pitched low and soothing. "Gail's going through some kind of deprogramming therapy at Cabrillo. If it works, they're not gonna press charges against her."
"Good." Starsky's voice was almost inaudibly soft.
Hutch hesitated. "Y'know, they're going to ask you to testify at the trial for Marcus' goons. Think you can handle that?"
There was a brief silence. Starsky lay unmoving, untensing, as if he hadn't heard. Or didn't want to hear. Hutch spoke again. "I'm gonna be there with ya, you know that. Always."
There was a soft sigh, but it was a sound of acceptance. "I know." A pause. Then, "Okay."
Hutch closed his eyes and leaned his head against the curly one next to him, relieved. Another step taken toward healing. He opened his eyes again, resting a hand absently on the other's shoulder and began to talk, changing the subject to recent precinct gossip. Starsky responded with appropriate sounds of interest in all the right places until, after a while, he tapered off and became silent.
Hutch craned his neck to see his partner's face and found the eyes closed, breathing slow and deep in the rhythm of sleep. He smiled at the sight and leaned back, biding his time for a few minutes, making sure Starsky was deeply under before pulling them both up and aiming his partner toward his bed. Starsky protested drowsily, mostly asleep, but Hutch hushed him with a few words. He got Starsky back to the bedroom and into bed, once more tucking the blankets securely around him. The blue eyes drifted open one more time, arresting him. The earlier fear in them was fading, replaced instead by a vulnerability and intensity of feeling that briefly scared him. Starsky had placed all of himself, tattered and unraveling, into his partner's hands to somehow mend -- how could someone have such faith in him? What if he wasn't worthy of that confidence? But the eyes demanded nothing, expected nothing, merely accepted gratefully what he gave. He swallowed. A big responsibility, but also a big gift. And he was ready to accept that, too.
The deep blue eyes, heavy with sleep, began to close. "Y'stayin'?"
He had said it before, but never meant it as much as now. "Always."
Just like everything in his life since he'd met Starsky, healing was shared.
Written in 1995