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Ken Hutchinson rubbed his hair-covered upper lip as he pulled the LTD up in front of his partner's building. "So...we still on for dinner tonight?"
Dave Starsky turned to him with a child-like grin on his face. "Of course. You think I'm going to cheat you out of the chance to give me my birthday present?"
"I'm sure you'd never let me do that!" Hutch blurted out just as Starsky slammed the car door, the driver's smile showing two rows of straight white teeth.
"See ya later," the brunet yelled over his shoulder as he mounted the steps to his apartment.
Hutch had driven the route from Starsky's to his own place so many times that he knew he could do it without a thought. It was a good thing today, as his mind strayed to other matters. He remembered standing outside of Starsky's door just that past Friday night; the plan was to meet before going to pick up their dates. As he stood outside the door, he could hear his partner on the telephone inside, apparently talking with his mother.
"Yeah, Ma, he's still got it.... Yeah, I know, I wish he'd shave, too.... No, his hair's longer than it used to be.... Ma, didn't you get the picture I sent you last month...?Well, that's exactly how he looks.... No, I don't think sending him a pair of new slacks would help.... Yeah, I know, I'm a little worried about him, too.... He just doesn't seem as happy as he used to be. Sorta tired, y'know...?Yeah, I guess you could try some home-made cookies if you want.... Look, Ma, don't worry. I'm sure he'll be fine. He's just got to shake this off, and things'll be back to normal."
Until he overheard this conversation, it had never occurred to the blond officer how a simple change in wardrobe and hair had affected his partner. Starsky somehow knew that the physical change was a symptom, not the disease itself. For awhile now, Starsky had seemed unsettled and nervous around his partner, like he was afraid he'd slip away. Hutch didn't understand that; if anybody had a right to be anxious about losing his partner, it was he, himself. Starsky had come so close to dying that day in the hospital.
Unable to sleep that night, he'd examined his conscience closely, realizing that the way he looked was only a small part of how he'd changed in the past year. Yes, he had grown tired; tired of fighting a system where they often couldn't win, tired of watching good people get hurt, tired of being scared every minute that he'd mess up just once and cost his best friend his life. Was Starsky afraid he was tired of their partnership or maybe even their friendship? Maybe, but he'd make it clear to him that he wasn't.
With that new determination in mind, he wondered about the changes, doing his best to be detached. Was there one distinct incident that instigated this weariness? When had he first started feeling this way? I guess the first time was in that barn. Joey almost got killed with me because of that lunatic Johnny Bagley. Then there was the Sheriff's daughter up at Pine Lake. And Hannah! Sweet, kind, gentle Hannah. So many innocents at the mercy of so many nutcases. How could they possibly expect us to stop them all? Hutchinson, you got around all those things before, and you can do it again. Just take `em one at a time; you and Starsk have always survived that way.
But the last thing Hutch wanted was his partner worrying about him. Why didn't he say something sooner if my changing worried him? Why didn't I realize it bugged him sooner? There were no answers to Hutch's questions, except that they hadn't been communicating as clearly as perhaps they once had. The conversation he'd overheard had proved that Starsky had seen past the physical changes to the crux of the problem.
I sure hope you like your presents, the blond thought as he drove home, rubbing his upper lip again. He'd puzzled over a gift for his partner for weeks, agonizing over just the right thing for this very special birthday. It needed to be right, in honor of Starsky's survival of a shooting that would have killed a lesser man. Mulling over the conversation he had overhead, the perfect solution had come to mind. What he needed, what they both needed, was a revitalization!
When he pulled up in front of Venice Place, he removed a large garment bag from the trunk and went inside, checking his watch to see how long he had to pull the last details together before Starsky's surprise. As he bounded up the stairs, he relished the energy he felt surging through his muscles. He'd felt so good lately, but had tried to keep it purposefully leashed to avoid his very observant partner's noticing. The time wasn't quite right yet.
Starsky was all smiles as he unlocked his door, excited at the prospect of his birthday dinner and the surprise Hutch had promised him. He wasn't in the door more than five minutes when his telephone rang.
"Hi, Sweetheart! Happy Birthday!" His mother's unmistakable New York accent warmed his heart, even as he felt a slight twinge of homesickness at her absence. After all these years, he would've thought it wouldn't happen anymore, but somehow it always did.
"Thanks, Ma! It just wouldn't be my birthday without the two most important people in my life!"
"Meaning a call from me and dinner with Ken, right?" Starsky could almost feel her gentle smile over the phone as he told her about their plans for the evening.
"Hutch says he's got some great surprise cooked up for my present this year, but I'm almost afraid to find out what it is." He suddenly heard her sniffle in the background as his last sentence ended.
"Ma, are you crying? Why?"
"I am not crying!"
"Yeah, you are, Ma. I'm not deaf and I heard you!" Starsky's concerned tone for his maternal parent was clear and very genuine.
"Okay, I was crying. But it's just that I'm so happy."
Starsky decided to take control. "Ma, in all the years I have been on this planet - since I've been old enough to remember, that is - I have never once seen you cry from happiness. Now, c'mon. What gives?"
"Okay, so maybe `happy' wasn't exactly the right word. How about if I change it to `relieved'?"
"Relieved?" Starsky questioned, now thoroughly confused. What was making her act this way? This just wasn't in character for her. A new thought suddenly occurred to him. "Ma, you're not having those nightmares again, are you? You know, the ones where I'm getting shot or stabbed or strangled or kidnapped or whatever?"
"No, dear. It's not that. To me, this is a very important birthday for you."
"But, why? I don't understand. I know Hutch and me aren't kids anymore, but this birthday isn't that different from last year's."
"Don't you see, Dave?" When silence was her answer she finally resigned herself to the fact that she was going to have to say the words, since he apparently wasn't going to be able to figure this one out for himself. "Okay, I'll explain. It's really very simple: you are now, as of today, older than your father was when we lost him."
"Awww, Ma! No!" Starsky exclaimed, but his thoughts did drift back to the way his father had looked just before he was killed. Yeah, he thought, he was about my age!
"Davey, ever since you became a police officer, and you know this already `cause you've certainly heard about it enough, I've been so afraid that your life would end the same way your father's did. And after that shooting a few months back, with you so close to dying, I was terrified I'd be right. Thank God they were able to bring you back when your heart stopped! But it looks like you're luckier than he was - you're still here, with me."
"Well, in spirit anyway, Ma, if not in body." Starsky thought a moment. "Ya know, I don't think it is luck. I think I'm still here mostly because of Hutch. And he's still here because of me. I just wish Pop had had a partner like him. He might've stood a chance when those goons gunned him down."
The line was silent for a moment, both thinking about someone they loved who was no longer with them. "I'm sorry, honey," Rachel finally brought her attention back to the conversation, "I shouldn't have brought up such a maudlin subject on such a happy occasion. I know you're probably eager to go get ready for your dinner, so I'll let you go. Take care, and tell Ken hello from me."
"Sure, Ma. I'll tell him." He almost hung up, then put the receiver back to his ear. "Ma?"
"I'm still here, Davey."
"I know this might sound strange, but.... What do you think Pop woulda thought of Hutch?"
She seemed to think for a moment, not pointing out what an unusual question it was. "I think," she began, "he would have said that you two were a total mismatch with nothing in common but your occupation." She paused again, then added, "and then he'd admit that even he couldn't have picked a better friend and partner for you."
Who knows? Maybe he did pick him for me. We never could figure out how we ended up together. "Thanks, Ma," he said after a breath. "I'll talk to you again on Friday. `Night."
A shower, shave, and clean clothes were all dispensed with far too soon, so Starsky sat on the couch in the waning sunlight. A scrapbook full of ancient photos lay in his lap, and he stared into many versions of a face so close to his own as to be disturbing. He felt ashamed at how often and easy it was to forget about his father, and the sensation became even more acute when he had to be reminded of that kind of statistic of his father's too-short existence.
Sitting there alone, Starsky thought about what he'd told his mother regarding Hutch and himself. It was true: they weren't kids anymore. The high number of trips to the hospital over the past year made him realize that perhaps they needed to be more careful. Somehow, they had been missing the "spirit" of the early years, and Starsky found he wanted it back. He did not desire to regress in time - he knew that was unrealistic - just regain some of the affection and optimism they'd once had for their jobs and their lives.
Somehow, he swore, they'd get it back, no matter what it took. He knew it would take some doing - a man can't undo something as big as this in a day, especially when he had no idea where to start. But he'd do it all the same. Heck, if I can build that model ship, rebuilding us should be a piece of cake. He chuckled softly at his new determination. Now if he could only transfer that to his partner, his job would be even easier!
When Hutch arrived back at Starsky's, the call to "come in" came quickly after his knock, but the blond was surprised when he saw that the room was almost dark. "Starsk?" he questioned when he saw the silhouette of his partner on the couch.
"Yeah?" Starsky responded, his voice level.
"You ready for dinner?" Hutch entered the apartment, walking carefully in the dimness.
"Yeah. Just waiting for you, buddy."
"Starsk, why are you sitting in the dark?" The blond inquired gently, knowing how out of character this was for his energetic partner. Since recovering from the wounds inflicted by Gunther's hit men, Starsky never seemed to stay in one spot for more than a few seconds. After six months, it was odd to not see him fidgety.
"Oh, I just got to thinking and didn't notice the sun was goin' down."
"C'mon, Starsk," the blond said, sitting down next to him. "I know you better than that. What's wrong?"
"Can I tell you during dinner, buddy? I don't think I'm ready to talk about it just yet. Besides, it'll be easier in a room full of people...you know, less likely to get soapy."
Hutch saw the look that Starsky always got when he was embarrassed at being sentimental, so he was quick to concede. "Okay, later then. Hey, we'd better get going if we don't want to lose our table at Huggy's."
The brunet rose from the couch and turned on the lights to look for his coat. He grabbed it from a nearby chair - where he'd forgotten he'd put it - and turned back to the blond. He was instantly surprised at the outfit Hutch had chosen for this particular evening. Brown corduroys instead of faded jeans, boots instead of sneakers, and a blue shirt with a guitar emblazoned across the back. It was an ensemble that he hadn't seen his partner wear in a long time. Thinking back for a moment, he decided that it was definitely before the longer-hair-and-mustache look, but he couldn't put his finger on exactly when. Even though it wasn't his own style, Starsky was glad to see it again on his partner. And his partner seemed particularly comfortable to be wearing these old friends. Shades of days gone by, he thought, when we were both younger and had so much more zest for life. It was a step in the right direction. As they left the apartment, he noticed a spring in the blond's step that hadn't been there a few weeks ago. At that moment, Starsky felt determined to do whatever it took to keep it there. I'm going to start taking care of you, partner. Just like you take care of me. I promise.
Starsky didn't suspect that, as he followed his friend out, Hutch was silently making the same promise.
Huggy had reserved the best table in the place for his friends, and used his usual grandiose gestures in leading them to it. "The seat of honor for our favorite birthday boy!" he announced as they slid into the booth. Starsky was quick to notice the two wrapped gifts which were pushed against the wall, the tags indicating that the flat one was from Hutch, while the smaller one was a gift from Huggy Bear.
Hutch saw his eyes light up when he spotted the boxes, but was determined not to give away the surprise. He had planned the menu with Huggy in advance, and shortly, the tall black man brought out two glasses and a pitcher of beer. "Your entrees will be out shortly," he told them, quickly making himself scarce.
Anita brought their plates a few minutes later, heaped with pot roast and vegetables, with gravy on the side, just in case. "Hutch, this is great! Thanks so much!"
Starsky's disposition had taken a definite turn for the better, but the blond couldn't dismiss the mood he had seen earlier. "While we're chowing down on this terrific, and healthy, by the way, dinner, why don't you tell me what was bothering you earlier?"
Starsky thought about how concerned his partner sounded and wanted to put him at ease. "It's really no big deal, buddy. It's just that, before you came in, Ma called and reminded me of something I'd forgotten." The blond was silent, waiting for him to continue, and although Starsky's expression was serious, it wasn't as sad as it had been back at the apartment. "Hutch, do you realize that, as of today, I am older than my father ever lived to be?"
Hutch looked his partner in the eyes, remembering all the times Starsky had spoken about his father. Like his son, the man had been a great human being as well as a devoted friend to those lucky enough to have him. "And you're thinkin' about how close you came to not making it to 35?"
"Yeah, I guess I kind of am. That deal with Gunther...I came so close to cashing it in...."
"But you made it, and I'm gonna be more careful the next time. I'll take better care of you," he added, verbalizing the promise he'd made earlier. "Y'know, Starsk, your father would still be alive today if he and his partner were as good of friends as we are. There won't be a repeat, and you're gonna live until you're ninety!" The blond was enthusiastic, eyeing his gift and thinking how it seemed to go along with the conversation.
"Thanks, partner. I guess that's part of the reason we survive. We care." Silence descended, and the men looked into each other's eyes as they both burst out laughing. "This conversation doesn't sound like us at all!" Starsky laughed even louder.
"Well," Hutch joked back, "chalk it up to approaching senility!
As their guffaws died down to quiet chuckles, Starsky sat back and wiped the napkin lightly across his mouth. "Man, that was fantastic! Now, when do I get to open my presents?"
Hutch motioned to Huggy, who had returned to the bar, to join them for the unveiling of the gifts. The barkeep's present was revealed to be a coffee mug filled with chocolate candy. Emblazoned across the front of the ceramic cup was the phrase, "Cops Do It Under Interrogation," at which Starsky laughed uproariously and popped a chocolate into his mouth.
"Take it easy, partner," Hutch warned. "You've gotta leave room for cake in a few minutes."
"Hutch, there's always room for cake, especially birthday cake." Hutch handed him the second package, which Starsky dug into with especially vigorous energy. "Can't wait to see what you got me."
The dark-haired man's face fell when he lifted the lid off the box and beheld a candy-apple red sweatsuit with a white stripe down the side of each arm and leg - a perfect match for Starsky's beloved Torino. "Well..." he stalled, thinking out loud, "it isn't really something I'd've bought for myself, but the colors are great. Thanks a lot, buddy." Hutch knew his partner wasn't thrilled.
Starsky pulled out the sweatshirt and held it up to the window they sat beside. As he did, a business-size envelope fell from the folds, nearly landing in his emptied plate. "Hey! What's this," he asked the blond, examining the sealed envelope.
"Part two of your birthday present, Starsk." Hutch watched as Starsky tore into the new gift.
"This certificate entitles the bearer," Starsky read aloud from the parchment, "to one full year's membership at Vinnie's Gym, including all rights and privileges thereof. Presented to David Starsky, From Ken Hutchinson." The brunet paused for a fraction of a second. "Hutch, you got me a membership at your gym?!"
"Yeah, buddy. I figure, we're not getting any younger, so we've gotta start taking care of ourselves." The blond smiled, mostly because he knew Starsky was following right along the path he was laying.
"You should talk, blondie! When was the last time you went to Vinnie's?" The verbal fencing was invigorating Starsky, each man thinking he had the other one beat.
"As a matter of fact, I was there last night. Worked out for over an hour just before bed." Hutch rubbed a shoulder carefully, "I didn't realize how much I overdid it until I woke up this morning." As he continued to rub, he noticed the slight look of concern in Starsky's eyes. "Don't worry, partner. It's only sore muscles. They'll go away when we both get in the habit again. We'll never be 25 again, but there's nothing to say we can't feel like it!"
"Okay, okay. I'll start going to the gym! Man, if you browbeat the suspects the way you do me, I.A.'d have you up on charges for cruel and unusual punishment or somethin'." Starsky carefully refolded the shirt and laid it back in the box. "Well, since I'm going to be starting such a tough regimen tomorrow, how about having some cake tonight, while we still can?"
"Sounds like a great idea," Hutch nodded as he rose. "I'm going to make a pit stop, then we can cut the cake!" Starsky followed his partner with his eyes, his face serious, not smiling, as Hutch crossed the restaurant toward the restrooms and the kitchen. Huggy was quick to notice.
"Something wrong, Starsk? Not happy with your presents?" the black man questioned.
"No, actually, I really liked `em, but don't you dare tell him I admitted it! It's just so typical of the blintz. He worries and worries, but never about himself and usually about me. My Mom may be in New York, but she's got a perfect stand-in right here. Sometimes I wonder if I don't worry enough about him."
"I think you worry about him plenty," Huggy interrupted wisely, "and don't think he doesn't know it." A silence settled over the table, Starsky being unable to argue the point since he knew that their barkeep friend had stated the truth.
When ten minutes had passed without Hutch reappearing, Starsky started to get up. "Where you goin'?" Huggy questioned, placing himself in front of the curly-haired man, barring his way.
"I'm gonna go check on Hutch. He's been gone a long time, and who knows?" Starsky looked concerned again.
"Now just sit down and take it easy. He'll be along pretty soon. After all, what could possibly happen to our blond buddy in a bathroom?" When Starsky's head jerked up at Huggy's comment, the black man suddenly realized what was going through the man's mind. "Oh, yeah. Well, just because Marcus's goons grabbed you in the john doesn't mean that it will happen right here in my humble establishment."
"Okay, okay. I'll give him five more minutes, then I'm gonna go after him," Starsky agreed, resigned.
Meanwhile, in the back of the restaurant, Hutch scrambled around, finishing up in the men's room and slipping unseen back to the kitchen. Starsky didn't notice the dark haired man who crossed to the exit from the bathroom, carrying a medical-looking bag in his hand.
Hutch was one minute away from having unexpected company when he was finally ready to reappear. Anita and Diane helped him light the candles on the large chocolate cake, being careful not to damage the image of a red and white car which was frosted across the top. "Thank you, ladies. I guess I'd better get back to my partner."
He hoisted the cake up and held it high, blocking his face with the candles and icing. "Now don't let me run into anything, okay?"
"Don't worry, gorgeous," Anita responded, "we won't let nothing happen to you."
Starsky's face lit up as bright as the candles themselves when he saw Hutch, or who he presumed was Hutch, emerge from the kitchen carrying the flaming cake. Just like a kid at Christmas, Hutch thought, smiling. The unimpaired smile felt strange, unfamiliar after the past year, but good nonetheless.
The bar erupted into a spontaneous version of "Happy Birthday," which Hutch joined boisterously as he watched Starsky blush. When the blond stopped next to their table, he slowly lowered the cake and sat it on the table, Starsky's eyes following it all the way down. "Hutch, it's beautiful!" he praised, admiring the Torino which decorated the cake. "Thank you..." he started to add as he looked up at his partner.
The expression of gratitude was never finished, though, for when he looked up to gaze at his partner, he finally saw what he knew was the rest of his birthday present. "Hutch! You're face! Your hair!!"
Ken Hutchinson blushed as he ran a hand quickly over his bare upper lip and through his newly-shorn hair. "Uhhh.... Happy birthday, partner."
"Hutch...," Starsky began, but found he was at a total loss for words.
"Now there's something you don't see every day," the blond joked, "a speechless Starsky." The birthday boy finally found his voice again.
"How did you know, buddy? How could you possibly have known? I never really told you how much I missed your old face!" Hutch laughed and Starsky admired the smile, unhindered by the hairy caterpillar. Then the light dawned. "I know! You talked with Ma, didn't you?"
"No, I'm afraid that this time your mother was not one of my sources. Hey, I told you I was going to get back into shape. Besides, I was gettin' bored with it anyway." Starsky admired the unhindered joy in the shining face - this was his Hutch.
"Hey!" Huggy interrupted, "ya know, Starsk, it's impolite to question the source of a gift. And if you don't blow out these candles soon, we're not gonna have any cake to eat `cause it's gonna be melted!"
Starsky pulled in a deep breath but let it out again without extinguishing the candles. What did he have left to wish for? He looked at his partner, realizing that all the emotional and physical changes Hutch had undergone in the last two weeks were coming together with these aesthetic ones, creating an invigoration in the blond that complimented him more than words could say. The clean-cut look seemed to have brought with it a fun-loving confidence Starsky hadn't seen in a long time. Or maybe it was the confidence and fun that brought the new look. Either way, both men realized the inside changes were the most important, regardless of which came first. Finally, a wish came to him. I wish we could be here celebrating, together, healthy and happy, for every birthday for the next 90 years. He closed his eyes as he mentally spoke the words, then opened them again.
"Well, I made my wish. You gonna help me with the honors, partner?" He looked at the blond, who bent over the table and took a deep breath just as Starsky did. The candles were out quickly. After Huggy cut and distributed large slices, the duo relaxed over beer and cake until the place emptied out and they finally left for Starsky's apartment.
Hutch was deep in thought as he directed the LTD back to Venice, remembering the expression on the face of his partner, whom he'd just left at the brunet's own home. I sure am glad you liked my surprises, partner. You may be the one who's a year older, but it was me that your birthday made sit up and take notice. He looked again at himself in the rear view mirror, realizing that the boyish face was still there after all these years, no longer hidden behind the bushy mustache or the long hair. It did look better, he admitted to himself with a smile, running his fingers through the short blond locks again.
Thanks, partner, Hutch thought to himself, for giving me the push I needed. Even if you didn't know you were doing it! I guess that's part of the reason we do survive. We take care of each other because we do care about each other.
When Starsky entered his own place, flicking on the lights as he crossed the threshold, he noticed the photo album he'd left open on the coffee table. Picking it up, he flipped through a few more pages before turning his gaze to the bookcase, where a larger portrait of his father loomed, watching over his son. Ever since he'd gotten home from the hospital, that photo seemed to peer at him wherever he went in the apartment. "Don't worry, Pop," he said aloud. "You don't need to look out for me anymore. Hutch and I will be sure it doesn't happen again. We'll be safe the way I wish you could have been safe." His eyes shone, a tear or two escaping the blue depths. He gently touched the face in the two pictures. "Goodnight, Pop. Happy birthday."
As he headed for the bedroom, he could almost hear his father's deep baritone behind him. "Happy birthday, son. You two take care of each other."