This story first appeared in the zine, Better Together (1997). This zine and many other fine S&H zines can be obtained from Agent with Style at:www.agentwithstyle.com. Comments on this story can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org and will be forwarded to the author.
The prequel to this story is Process.
The blue eyes were watching him, and suddenly he wasn't sure he could handle it anymore. It was like looking at a ghost, a ghost he had finally made peace with and relegated to the past. A part of his life he would always miss and grieve for, but that he was slowly getting used to living without. And just when he had almost finished learning the new rules, they changed on him again. His mind was reeling from it all.
But the eyes were still watching him, and they demanded a response. He couldn't stand there and silently stare all day like an idiot. He opened his mouth, but nothing came out. Feeling foolish, he cleared his throat and tried again.
There was definite doubt in his voice, and he was ashamed of it. Of course it was Hutch, his first glance had told him that. Surely he could trust his own eyes. 'Course, he had seen Hutch die with his own eyes, too...
"Hey." The response was soft, and a little hoarse, but it was the right voice.
"Hey, yourself." The answer was automatic and came unbidden to his lips, a past ritual that belonged with this figure from the past.
Starsky suddenly felt a little overwhelmed, and he quickly pulled up a chair next to the bed and sat down, hard. Hutch was still watching him, looking as uncertain as he himself felt, but he wondered if it was for the same reason. Or, for that matter, what his reason was.
"Uh, are you okay?" Starsky was still on automatic pilot, and belatedly he thought to look for some sign of injury. There was none that he could see, not even an IV. He found himself taking in every line of the body, noting its thinness, the longer hair, lingering on the long fingers, studying every plane of the face, comparing it to the image in his memory. The image that had been his sole companion for the last two months.
"...all right, just a little sore," Hutch was saying. Starsky dragged his attention from memory to the reality in front of him. "They just wanted to check me out." The look in the blue eyes had changed now from uncertainty to -- what, worry? No, more like concern. Loving concern. Funny, two months he hadn't seen those eyes, and he still understood what they said in silence better than what others said out loud. Like riding a bicycle... Starsky felt a little giddy.
Apparently, his friend hadn't forgotten how to read him either. Hutch was leaning forward, a hand reaching out toward his. "Are you okay?"
Starsky was suddenly afraid. He didn't want to be touched, not by a ghost. He jumped out of the chair and scrambled back a little, away from the hand, surprising them both. He fidgeted, restless, scratching his head, tugging at his jacket, not knowing what to do. "I, uh... You were dead!" The last was blurted out before he had a chance to think it through. The automatic "right" responses were gone, and all the emotions at war in him were suddenly struggling to get out.
Hutch put his hand down, his face softening. Understanding shone in his eyes now, and Starsky was irrationally angry at it. He didn't understand it himself, why would Hutch?
The anger cut through the confusion in him, and suddenly the jumble inside of him was pouring out. "You were dead, I saw it. You ran into the burnin' building, and it collapsed. They found your body, they had a funeral, Dobey assigned me a new...they told me you were dead." It sounded childish even to his own ears, but he didn't care. The anger was something solid to hold on to, and he needed that right now.
"Starsky, it was a set-up. They made it look like I was dead, knocked me out as soon as I ran into the building. I guess they got me out of there before it collapsed. I don't know, I woke up later, at Baldwin's." Hutch was trying to get Starsky to meet his eyes, but Starsky didn't want to. He could only deal with one thing at a time at the moment, and right now he gratefully pushed his feelings aside and concentrated on facts.
"Baldwin? James Baldwin? But why?" He looked up at Hutch, then immediately down again, trying to sort it out. James Baldwin, head of one of the bigger local syndicates. Not one of the good guys, that was for sure, but they had never crossed paths with him before -- what did he have against them?
"It was a...demonstration." Hutch's voice had taken on a hard edge. "He was making a statement to some of his competitors. Show them the extent of his power and score some points for taking care of a pesky cop at the same time. He was going to get rid of me after a while, after he'd finished showing his 'prize' off," the word was given all the disgust Hutch could muster, "but he didn't count on the Feds showing up on his doorstep. Turns out they had him staked out for a while but they didn't want to move in until they were good and ready."
Starsky risked a glance up at the flat tone the words were spoken in, and saw that Hutch wasn't looking at him, was actually staring up at the ceiling, his face flushed with anger and bitterness. For the first time, Starsky began to consider what Hutch was feeling, and the concern for his friend seemed to make all his own doubts shrink a little. It was always like that, wasn't it? I'd forgotten. Me and thee, but thee before me. Maybe that's why it hurt so much when you were gone, because there was nobody else to worry about and feel for except myself.
Slowly, hesitatingly, he made himself sit back down and, what was even harder, forced himself to reach out, watching his hand with almost a fascination as it paused, then touched the hand lying on the bed. Lightly at first, testing, then taking it in his own, feeling the warmth like an electric shock to his system. Not just warmth and life, but that life, that unique vibrance that he always felt when he was near Hutch, the presence that he had always reassuringly felt at his side without needing to actually see it. All the doubts began to fade away, dispelled by this unshakeable proof. No one else could feel that right.
Starsky looked up, met the eyes that were now turned toward him. "I missed you." It didn't have to be said, but he said it anyway, and a lot more in that simple phrase. A smile crossed his face, more unfamiliar than the hand he was crushing in his own. Before Hutch had returned, he had just been getting to the point where he could smile again, but it never felt as natural as this. What was it about this klutzy blond that made him want to smile all the time, and that made the world worth smiling at?
He continued. "I thought you were dead for the last two months." He said it haltingly, like a confession, but he wanted to say it, to tell his friend everything, share the last two months with Hutch just as they had shared everything all those years. "I didn't believe it for a long time, didn't even go to the funeral, I couldn't." He looked up with shame burning his cheeks, but there was no condemnation in the eyes that watched him steadily, only love and understanding. Starsky suddenly understood why -- if anyone could understand what he had gone through, it was Hutch. He took a deep breath, went on. "Kept expectin' you to show up and surprise everybody. It just didn't make sense..." He trailed off, rubbed angrily at full eyes that blurred his vision. Just thinking about it hurt, made him feel sick, but he had to tell it all. Starsky looked up again, was caught by those deep blue eyes. Mesmerized, he went on. "Dobey tried to assign me a new partner, Barnes, but it didn't last long, it was just too weird. I already had a partner..." He gulped, his eyes still held, and went on. "But then I cleaned out your desk at work, and I was sure it was over. Even went through the box of cards people sent." He stopped, then, more softly and sincerely than before. "I thought you were really gone."
The hand under his turned and clasped his, squeezing back hard. Hutch's voice was quiet. "I'm sorry." It was said with equal earnestness, and, absurdly, made everything seem right again.
"Why did you do it?!" The outburst startled them both, and Starsky pulled his hand back as the grip on it loosened in response. "Why did you run into that building without me? Don't ya' know you can get killed without back-up? That was the stupidest thing you've ever done!" He couldn't stay seated, and now paced to the other side of the room. He was ranting and he knew it, but he didn't care. When he thought how easily all of this could have been avoided...
Hutch looked confused by the turn of the conversation, but was trying to keep up. "Starsky, you know I had to! They said there was a kid in there, and I had to try..." He leaned forward, suddenly intense. "Did the girl get out okay?"
"There never was a girl! It was part of the set-up, dummy, and you fell for it. Didn't even give me a chance to come with ya'." Starsky wasn't even sure who exactly he was mad at anymore.
Hutch was still digesting the news. "I'm sorry, I didn't know. But I couldn't take that chance, you know that. You would have done the same thing." He was cajoling now.
Starsky's anger, aimless now, turned on himself, and he slammed his palm against the wall in frustration, the pain focusing him. He knew all too well; Hutch wouldn't have been the Hutch he knew and loved if he hadn't have run into that building to try and save a child. Starsky had known that all along, but it was easier to be mad than vulnerable.
That's what it came down to. The last two months had been hell, but a hell that he had made it through. The question was, could he go through it again someday if he had to, or should he just cut the ties now, not let himself be that vulnerable again? The thought scared him, both ways.
"I know," he finally said, leaning his forehead against the wall tiredly, not knowing what else to say, not knowing what to do now, feeling very lost.
He heard, both the words and the tone, but he was scared. A part of him desperately wanted to go, to be comforted, to make it all right, but he felt rooted to the ground. Ever since his world had collapsed with that fiery building, every day had taken him another step away from that love, and now he felt too far away. He couldn't make it back, not across that chasm.
The rustle of movement from across the room didn't register at all; he was confined in his fears and doubts, his eyes glued to the floor. Then there was a gentle hand on his shoulder, and he couldn't fight its pull, turning his unresisting body and enfolding him in a crushing embrace. It took him a moment to remember to breathe again, and when he did, it came out as more of a sob, but he was just held all the tighter. The doubts began to crumble against the onslaught of love and the fears were washed away by the warmth and security. After a minute of passively absorbing, Starsky finally gave in and hugged back hard, accepting the offered renewal. And love.
It was time to start living again.
Written in 1995
There is an another version of this story: Reverse Process: Alternate Version