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Charlotte Frost

    "I'm okay," Meredith assured Starsky.

    The curly-haired man, still tied to a chair as Meredith was, grinned longingly at her. "Yes, you are."

    Dobey, having Train properly cuffed, reached behind Starsky's temporary partner. His manner immediately softened toward the petite, black detective. "You ready to be untied, sister?" he asked as he began the task.

    "Yes, get me out of here," she replied enthusiastically, eyes on Starsky and his blond partner, who was still hunched over, leaning against the wall to brace against the pain from his 72-hour-old shoulder wound. Dry blood dominated Hutch's plaid shirt, as he had obviously come over from the hospital, without having gone home first to change into something decent. And it was apparent to Meredith that Hutch had, as indicated, released himself without his doctor's permission, for no competent physician would have permitted a patient in his care to leave after so short a time.

    Even as she felt a stab of jealousy that Starsky had his real partner back, Meredith also was extremely grateful. It didn't look like she could have talked Vivian out of wasting them. If Hutch and Dobey hadn't arrived....

    And, she knew instinctively, it would have been the blond's intelligence that had determined where she and Starsky could be found.

    Closer to me than my own brother was how Starsky had described their rescuer. Meredith had no trouble believing it, for the vivacious man's foul mood from concern for Hutch -- despite the hospital's assurance that Hutch would be fine -- had made the first hour of their temporary partnership a stormy one.

    Her coupling with Starsky the previous evening had been an act of respect, rather than love. It was now time for her temporary partner and friend to be returned to the one who loved him most.

    Hutch was taking that initiative now, weakly holstering his gun, for Dobey was cuffing Train while Meredith did the same to Vivian. The blond was reaching with his good arm for the rope that bound Starsky's hands.

* * *

    Seeing that Meredith was free, Starsky turned his full attention to his partner, who was reaching behind the chair. He could hear, and feel, the heavy inhalation and exhalation of each breath. Though more grateful for the blond's arrival on the scene than he would ever be able to express, Starsky found himself still amazed that Hutch was here at all.

    What'd you do, pal? Just walk out?

    He could detect small grunts now as Hutch's fingers fussed with the rope. Backup uniformed police arrived, and Dobey and Meredith gave them directions. Not wanting to draw attention to his partner, Starsky whispered over his shoulder, "Think you can get it?"

    Before Hutch had to answer, Dobey was there, efficiently untying the knot, while Hutch sighed gratefully.

    "Hutchinson, you're going right back to that hospital," Dobey said as he worked.

    "Yeah, yeah," the other muttered.

    "I mean it!" Dobey threatened.

    Starsky felt the rope fall, and he whirled around to place both hands on Hutch's waist, sensing the other's unsteadiness. "Come on, sit down here a minute." He quickly reached for the chair with one hand so Hutch could plop into it. The blond flinched, head swaying with pain and weakness.

    Dobey stood back and studied the injured man. Then, to Starsky, "Call an ambulance."

    Hutch's face was now resting in his good hand, the elbow of which was perched on a knee. "No, no," he managed, looking up. "I don't need an ambulance. I'm just...a little weak."

    Starsky knelt before Hutch, reaching up to take his chin. He waited until the blue eyes met his own, then gently asked, "You sure?"

    "Yeah," Hutch replied, maintaining the eye contact. "Can't you just give me a ride?"

    The smaller man continued to gaze at his partner. The look in those baby blues was asking something else. Starsky wasn't sure what, but he'd spent so little time with his partner since the shooting that he wanted nothing more than to be with him now.

    His eyes finally broke away to look up at Dobey. "I'll take him, Cap'n."

    Hutch straightened awkwardly, the pain in his shoulder paralyzing the left side of his body. "Really, Captain, I feel better already."

    "All right," Dobey agreed boisterously, pointing a finger, "but I'm going to call that doctor myself to make sure you follow his orders. You're no good to any of us in this condition."

    Starsky gently noted, "I beg to differ."

    Dobey grumbled, knowing Starsky was right, then turned away to give more orders to the uniformed cops, who were clearing out the juvenile delinquents still remaining in the house.

    The smaller detective briefly cupped a side of the pale face as he stood. "Think you can stand?" His voice was still soft, as he was more than willing to pamper his partner, not just for Hutch's sake, but to take his mind off the fact that he and Meredith both had been close to being murdered in cold blood by Vivian, the same fifteen-year-old girl who had shot Hutch.

    "Yeah," Hutch nodded, his good arm reaching for his partner.

    Starsky gently pulled Hutch to his feet. Behind him, he heard Dobey say, "You'll need a car. How about borrowing Meredith's, and she can ride down with me to the station?"

    Starsky nodded, then paused to catch the keys that the petite detective tossed him. "I'll take care of the paperwork," she assured him.

    The curly-haired detective gently took the blond by the waist, while Hutch's good hand rested on Starsky's shoulder. The taller man was slightly hunched over. Starsky took his eyes off him long enough to look back at Meredith. "Thanks," he told her, then hesitated. "I'm not sure when I'll be down."

    She nodded, her eyes meeting his, presenting her unique, bright-eyed smile. "I'll handle it, partner. You take care of your own."

    Gratefully, Starsky turned back to Hutch. "Think you can walk out of here?"

    "Yeah, yeah," the taller man nodded impatiently. But his lashes were fluttering in that endearing way they did when the blond was fatigued. Starsky kept a firm grip on the good arm as they moved out of the building and into the bright sunshine. The other could feel the throb of pain with each step Hutch took, and as a distraction, he said, "Nice wardrobe you're wearing there, pal." He wondered how long -- and at how many places -- Hutch had been walking around in the bloodied shirt.

    "Yeah, well, it's all I had," the other replied honestly.

    They were at Meredith's car. Starsky opened the door and gently helped Hutch sit in the passenger seat. Then he trotted over to the other side and got behind the wheel. Starting the motor, he reassuringly said, "We'll have you back in your nice comfy room in no time."

    "Starsky, I'm not going back to the hospital."

    Surprised by the blunt tone, the darker man looked sharply to his right. "What?"

    Hutch breathed deeply and cringed from the pain. He was leaning back against the door. "Come on, buddy, just take me home. I don't want to go back there."

    Starsky felt immediate empathy. Yet... "You heard Dobey. He'd have both our hides."

    "So what else is new?"

    Thick brows furrowed as Starsky studied the ailing man. "Hutch, you look whipped. Be reasonable. Besides," his voice lightened, "you did seem to be enjoying all that attention from the nurses."

    "Flirting with the nurses is the only thing that made it bearable." Hutch's jaw was firming. Earnestly, he said, "If they see how much I'm hurting, they'll pump me full of stuff." His eyes tried to communicate what the words could not.

    Starsky felt himself deflate. Of course. Ever since being kidnapped by Ben Forest and his cronies, well-intentioned medical treatment had been particularly difficult for his partner. As Starsky thought about it now, it had seemed strange that Hutch had been so quickly taken off the IV's. He knew it must have been because Hutch demanded it as soon as his was conscious enough to do so. After the heroin incident, his partner hesitated to take even the most harmless of medicines.

    Looking out the front windshield of the still-parked car, Starsky grimly asked, "What have they been doing, giving you oral medication?"

    The barest hint of a sly smile. "Yeah. But sometimes I only pretended to swallow it."

    Starsky's small grin was one of affection, but he lowered his eyes as the guilt set in. He'd been so intent on finding Hutch's would-be killers, that he hadn't been at his partner's side through the worst of the pain. After all, Hutch was in the hospital, out of the woods.... When he'd seen him earlier this morning, the blond had seemed reasonably comfortable and uncomplaining. But days had already passed. He knew, from experience, that it had been a lot worse that first forty-eight hours or so after surgery.

    Hutch was scared, Starsky knew. The other never needed to speak the words to tell Starsky that withdrawal was something he could never go through again. It had been too agonizing. Of course, he had gotten through it once, only because Starsky had held him, babied him, through every step of the way. And Starsky would do so again. But he knew Hutch couldn't stand the thought of there ever being a repeat.

    "Okay," Starsky replied softly, starting the car forward.

    Hutch breathed a heavy sigh of relief.

    After a few moments, the smaller man conversationally asked, "How did you find us?"

    Hutch relayed what had happened since he'd left the hospital, how he'd discovered that Train and his gang had learned how people who were going on vacation, leaving their residence an easy target for robbery, had all used the same answering service. The owner of the service was the one tipping off Train's gang, and collecting a reward for her efforts.

    Starsky shook his head in admiration. "Sometimes you're not such a dummy," he kidded.

    "Yeah, well, I figured you and your lady friend were going to need some backup. I knew more than anybody how dangerous those kids could be."

    Starsky grinned. "Meredith may resent being called my 'lady friend'. She's a detective, a professional all the way." He glanced over at his companion. "Make no mistake about that."

    "You slept with her, didn't you?"

    Starsky's grin widened at the question, but he thought it best not to answer. Hutch's perception amazed him at times.

    Hutch grunted, understanding the lack of reply. "Just a professional relationship, right?"

    The curly-haired man looked over again, teasing, "You jealous?"

    "Hey, if I can flirt with nurses, you can make it with your lady partner. Of course," Hutch noted, "I only got to flirt."

    "Yeah, well, with your buddy taking care of you, you'll be back on your feet in no time, resuming your career as a lady-killer."

    "Yeah, I hope so," came the bland reply. Then, "To tell you the truth, all I want to do right now is get some rest."

    Starsky stepped on the accelerator, wishing they were in the Torino. Hutch admitting to being this worn out wasn't a good sign. He considered threatening to take the other back to the hospital, if his temperature was too high, if the pain got too bad... but when he turned to say the words, he didn't have the heart. Hutch's eyes were partially closed, breathing heavily through his mouth. The blond needed him, trusted him. And trust was something they never betrayed.

    Starsky clarified, "It's getting bad, isn't it?"

    The blond's eyelashes fluttered and he tried to shift a little, grunting, "It's just throbbing a lot. I'm sure once I can lie still it'll be okay. It didn't bother me much in the hospital if I didn't move around."

    And Hutch had been moving around a lot since his escape.

    Starsky sighed gratefully when the Ford came to a halt in front of Venice Place. "We're here, pal. Sit tight and let me give you a hand."

    But Hutch had managed to get the door open by the time Starsky appeared at his side. The curly-haired man bent to ease his partner out of the seat, and the blond muttered, "I can walk."

    "Yeah, I know," Starsky said, settling himself at Hutch's right and putting an arm around his waist, "but we've got a flight of stairs to climb." They moved into the building. "I think it's best if we take 'em one at a time."

    The blond didn't argue, and he did step gingerly to keep jarring to a minimum. After the first few steps, Starsky moved aside, leaving his hand just behind his partner's elbow. They made steady progress, but Hutch's breathing was more labored when they finally reached the landing.

    Starsky felt for the key and opened the door.

    "Ah, home," Hutch greeted as he moved inside.

    The smaller man smiled at the sentiment. After the closing the door behind them, he was once again at the blond's elbow. "Yeah, and you're going straight to bed."

    Hutch didn't reply, but moved toward the bedroom.

    "Can I get you anything?" Starsky asked as he sidestepped to the refrigerator. "Hungry?"

    "Only if there's something truly edible," came the tired reply.

    Starsky studied the contents of the pathetically bare refrigerator. He had to study the cabinets for a couple of minutes before speaking further. "Want a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?" He listened to Hutch unsnap his jeans.

    "No." The mattress creaked gently. "I'll eat later."

    It was just as well, Starsky decided, for his own interest in food took a back seat to caring for his partner. Soft grunts and a groan beckoned him to the sleeping area, where Hutch was still dressed, leaning awkwardly back against the headboard of the bed, his legs lazily slanted to the floor. He was grimacing as he tried to lift his arm from its sling.

    "Here, buddy," Starsky said as he reached to assist, "let me help you with that."

    Hutch relaxed a moment. "If you can loosen the buckle in the back." He shifted again, trying to lean forward.

    "Hold still a sec." The grimaces of pain and heavy breaths were beginning to wear on Starsky's nerves, for everything inside of him believed that every flare of pain was somehow his responsibility, simply because one was always responsible for the well-being of his partner. He fussed with the buckle, was grateful when it slid along the elastic strap long enough to loosen the whole contraption. "Okay, now let me get it over your head...." He carefully eased it over the blond hair, Hutch ducking to make it easier.

    "Okay," Starsky laid the sling aside, "now let's get your clothes off." He was already starting with the jacket, pulling the flaps back on the red-stained, powder blue denim. The right arm was easy, but Starsky was extra careful with the left, and was pleased he was able to pull the sleeve free without any further pain.

    "Step one," he noted cheerfully, letting the jacket drop to the floor. "Okay, now the shirt." He wondered how Hutch had ever managed to get into the shirt by himself, since it required two hands to button. It must have hurt like hell, and the smaller detective felt a twinge of guilt once again for not being there. He pulled at the sleeve on the right side, stretching it far away from Hutch's body before the other was able to remove his arm. Still, the blond flinched.

    "I don't know how the hell you managed to get it on in the first place," the darker man said in a scolding tone.

    Hutch's face was flushed with effort. "Just sheer determination," he said seriously.

    "And stupidity." Starsky very carefully pulled the left sleeve down along the left arm.

    "Hey, my stupidity saved your life."

    Starsky couldn't let it go, even as he knew that his annoyance was directed at himself for not being there. "It was still stupid."

    Hutch's upper body was now naked, save for the bandage over the wound, and he sat back against the brass headboard with a heavy sigh.

    "Not done yet, partner." Voice gentle again, Starsky pulled at each of the boots, grateful that they came off easily, then repeated the motion with the socks. When he turned his attention away from the feet, he saw that Hutch had already opened his jeans and was awkwardly trying to push them down his hips.

    "Come on, buddy," Starsky prompted as he reached to put an arm around the other, "stand up a sec so we can get them off."

    He could see the blond preparing himself for the effort. Gingerly, Hutch straightened. Then, after another moment of mental preparation, he shakily stood, while Starsky gripped him about the waist.

    It would be too much effort trying to separate the underwear from the jeans, so Starsky forcefully pushed them both down on the nearest side, and Hutch did likewise with the other side. When they were pooled at the blond's feet, Starsky braced his grip and directed, "Step out of them."

    Hutch did, and Starsky continued to support him as the taller man sat back on the bed. Starsky kicked the clothes away, then leaned down to Hutch, taking him by the waist. "Okay, now," he said gently, "lie back. Real slow and easy." He stole a moment to push the rumpled covers out of the way.

    As he obeyed, Hutch glanced behind him, and Starsky reached to grab both pillows, and then tried to maneuver them into a comfortable position. "You like sittin' up?"

    "Yeah," the blond grunted with closed eyes, leaning forward to adjust the pillows further. Starsky was trying to assist, and had to keep pausing to see how comfortable Hutch was. Finally, they had the pillows arranged so Hutch was partially sitting, partially lying back against them, and the blond let out a sigh of finality.

    "Want your sling back on?"

    Hutch shrugged, then checked the motion with a grimace. "Yeah, I guess."

    Starsky took the sling from the dresser and studied it a moment. It was similar to the one he'd had to wear after being shot in the restaurant, but that was three years ago, and the straps tended to be confusing. Finally, he held it out, slipped it over Hutch's head and shoulder and, very gently, slipped the left arm into it.

    That done, the smaller man placed a hand on the broad forehead, not surprised at the heat he felt there. "Hang on, I'm getting a thermometer." He didn't hear a protest as he trotted out of the bedroom, toward the bathroom. Once there, he found what he was looking for in the medicine cabinet, and he began to shake it down as he returned to his partner.

    Hutch looked up at him through droopy eyelids, his mouth open in an effort to breathe against the pain. In a low voice, he reminded, "I'm not going back to the hospital."

    Starsky frowned at the stubbornness as he studied the instrument to make sure the mercury was low enough. "I know that," he replied firmly, then bent. "Here." The mouth obeyed, the tongue lifting, and Starsky placed it underneath. He straightened after the full lips closed around it, then allowed himself a sigh. He settled a hip on the edge of the bed, careful not to jostle the mattress. "I'm gonna have to call the doctor to get some pain pills for you, and I'm sure he's going to want to know what your temperature is." He was pleased that his partner didn't argue, but was regarding him with a somewhat helpless, I'm-counting-on-you expression. Starsky couldn't help but grin reassuringly, and rested a hand along a pale cheek. "Don't worry. He may give me hell, but I won't let him talk me into taking you back. You're staying right here with me."

    The sea-blue gaze lowered, as though Hutch was finally convinced that he no longer had to maintain his determination to stay home.

    Starsky grinned affectionately, even while inwardly cringing at his next words. "I gotta call Dobey, too. No use in putting it off. He'll be pissed but," he shrugged, "there's not much else he can do."

    The answering eyes were sympathetic, then contemplative. After a moment, the mouth moved to form, "L'ter."

    Starsky straightened, grin widening. "Nah, I don't want him callin' here after you've fallen asleep and waking you up. I'll call him first." He didn't get an argument, and Starsky regarded the pale expression a moment longer. "Be back in a sec," he said, lightly patting the nearest hand.

    He found a washcloth from the linen closet, then wet it with cool water from the kitchen sink. He rung out the excess before returning to the bedroom. He reclaimed his position on the bed, then pressed the cloth against the full length of Hutch's forehead. "Here, try this."

    Hutch closed his eyes as the coolness penetrated, a slight grin tugging at the corner of his mouth.

    "Feel good?"


    Starsky continued to watch his partner with affection, but his own smile gradually began to fade, and he fought to restrain a heavy sigh.

    He knew that, after Hutch had been shot, he had done all the right things, acted in his partner's best interest -- as well as that of the citizens of Los Angeles -- by going after those responsible. Still, it was hard not to feel that he'd short-changed Hutch somewhere, not been the buddy the other counted on him being, but instead handed him over to the capable but cold, dispassionate care of doctors, nurses and orderlies.


    Starsky glanced up from where he'd been staring at the mattress. He automatically smiled when he found blue eyes gazing at him, the nod of a chin indicating he was neglecting his duties.

    Starsky removed the thermometer, the corner of his eye noting the way Hutch watched him. "Well, let's see...," he tried to get a long-enough look at the shimmering mercury. "It's at...," his voice dropped slightly, "one hundred exactly." He instinctively shook the instrument once, then placed it on the bedside table. "Doc's not going to like that," he noted, yet also pressed reassuringly with the hand that still held the washcloth.

    "It's just from being up and around," the blond muttered. "It'll probably go down if I lay here awhile."

    "Probably," the curly-haired man agreed. He realized there was nothing else he wanted to do but agree to whatever Hutch wanted; try to make up for having not been there.

    Starsky gave the washcloth a firm pat, then removed his hand. He stood, pulling up the covers and gently tucking them around his partner. "Let's at least keep you nice and toasty." He watched Hutch take the hem in his good hand, and complete the process of pulling it up to his neck.

    It then dawned on Starsky that his partner hadn't complained once about being fussed over.


    That, Starsky realized, was all Hutch really wanted: to be babied. And certainly, he felt, the other had earned the right.

    "Okay," he spoke gently, patting the covered form near the chest, "I'm going to call your doctor now. What was his name? Penninger or somethin'?"

    "Pennington," Hutch replied obediently. "Thomas L., M.D."

    "Okay," Starsky said, pulling up a chair from the wall and reaching for the phone. Under his breath, he repeated, "Pennington, Thomas L., M.D." He dialed information for the phone number to Memorial. After calling them, he had to be transferred two or three times before he was able to reach the doctor himself. He quickly got to the point, outlining the fact that Hutch was safely at home, had a temperature of a hundred degrees, was in a fair amount of pain, and needed something to control the latter.

    "Mr. Starsky," the doctor said, "I can't discuss Mr. Hutchinson's situation with you, since you're not a member of his family."

    Starsky had faced this frustration before, as he knew Hutch often had when it was himself who was in the hospital. At least, this time, the solution was easy. "How about if you speak to Mr. Hutchinson himself? He's right here." He held out the receiver.

    Hutch regarded it with distaste, and the curly-haired man knew it was because the blond wasn't looking forward to defending himself for leaving without being officially released. But he gallantly gestured with his chin, and Starsky held the receiver next to a pale ear.

    "Hi, Doc," Hutch greeted with false cheeriness. He listened, then, "Yes, I know, but I had other concerns at the time.... Yes, I realize that.... Yes, I know. Look, send over whatever papers you need, and I'll sign them...." The defensive tone dropped to a more serious level. "It's just sore and throbs a lot. But I'm resting now.... Yeah, okay.... Let me give you back to my partner; that's his department."

    Puzzled, Starsky took the phone back. "Yes, Doctor?" He waited while Pennington, all professional now, detailed the medication he was prescribing. When he asked what pharmacy Hutch used, Starsky thought quickly, then gave the location of one near The Pits. The conversation ended shortly after that, and Starsky immediately dialed another number.

    "Who you callin'?" Hutch asked tiredly.

    Starsky didn't reply, for the phone was answered almost immediately.

    "The Pits, Huggy speaking."

    "Hey, Hug."

    "Starsky, how's Hutchy baby?"

    "He's doing pretty good. He's at home now. But, listen, we need a favor."

    "What is it?"

    "He needs a prescription picked up. I don't want to leave him alone right now, and I was wondering if you could drop by the pharmacy a few doors down from your place and bring the pills over to his apartment."

    There was a brief pause, then, "Yeah, I can do that."

    "Great. The doctor's calling it in now, so it should be ready pretty soon."

    "I'll take care of it. Tell Hutch to grit his teeth and bear it a little longer."

    "Thanks, Huggy, you're a pal. See ya in a bit." Starsky hung up the phone.

    "He agree to being a delivery service?" Hutch asked.

    Starsky shrugged. "Hey, what are friends for?" He reached to pat the washcloth more firmly in place. Already, it was drying out. He looked his partner in the eye. "Feel any better?"

    The long eyelashes fluttered twice. "Yeah. If I don't move, it's not so bad."

    Which was different than saying it didn't hurt anymore, Starsky thought grimly. He may as well finish off his last, unwanted task. Reaching for the receiver yet again, he began to dial with determination.

    "Dobey?" Hutch asked quietly.

    "Yep." Starsky asked the switchboard at Metro to transfer him. When the captain replied, he cheerfully said, "Hi ya, Cap."

    "Starsky, how's Hutch doing?"

    "Resting nicely at home."

    "Good, I'm glad to hear -- at home?"

    "That's right, Cap'n."

    The other voice bellowed, "What the hell is he doing at home? He belongs in a hospital. I told you to -- "

    "Captain," Starsky interrupted quietly, "he insisted. Plus, you know," his voice grew a bit sheepish despite his best intentions, "he's really okay. He just needs to rest. And he can rest a hell of a lot better here than he can in a place with strangers stickin' needles into 'im." He watched Hutch close his eyes and nod once, firmly, in agreement.

    "He didn't look okay at Train’s place," Dobey reminded. "He practically passed out."

    "Of course," Starsky stated reasonably. "He'd been up and around, after all, figuring out how to save me and Meredith, even though he didn't know for a fact that we were in trouble." He paused to let the truth of the statement penetrate. "He's been feeling pretty good since I put him to bed."

    When there was a moment's silence at the other end, Starsky knew he'd won the argument -- not that losing it would have changed anything. But then Dobey sighed dramatically. "I suppose if you're with him that means I've got two detectives off the roster."

    Starsky tried not to cringe. Then he reasoned, "Cap'n, Meredith and I have put in over twenty-four hours straight. We both deserve at least a day or two off."

    "Yeah, yeah," Dobey muttered reluctantly. A petite voice was heard in the background, and the captain's voice was more congenial when he spoke again. "Meredith says 'Hi' and she wants to know how Hutch is doing."

    Starsky grinned with fondness for his brief partnership with the special lady. "Tell her Hutch is in good hands and is doing well." He waited until that got passed along. Then, more firmly, "And remember to tell her, Cap'n, that she deserves some time off, too."

    "Listen, Starsky," the voice was firm again, "two days. No more. Then I want your tail back in here."

    The detective found his heart unable to come up with a retort. Quietly, he replied, "Thanks, Captain." He hung up and focused on the blue eyes watching him.

    "You get time?" Hutch asked.

    Starsky grinned smugly. "Yep, two days."

    "You're probably pretty beat, huh?"

    The other shrugged. "Meredith and I were tied up in chairs a good part of the time."

    The blond's soft snort was a mixture of affection and fear. "A real relaxing time, huh?"

    Starsky shrugged again, this time with a what-can-I-say attitude.

    Hutch closed his eyes, relaxing against the pillows.

    The smaller man reached for the washcloth. "I'll re-wet this." He went to the kitchen and ran the cloth beneath the water. He allowed the thought to penetrate that he was tired, but he wanted to make sure Hutch was taken care of before he succumbed to fatigue.

    Starsky wrung less water out this time, and when he returned to his partner's bedside, he placed the cloth against the smooth upper chest a brief moment.

    Eyes still closed, Hutch smiled.

    Starsky pressed the cloth against one cheek, then the other. Then he laid it to rest on the forehead again.

    "Buddy?" Hutch's eyes were still closed.


    Now the blue eyes opened. "You don't need to stick around. Just leave the door unlocked for Huggy."

    Starsky had to look away in order to fight the temptation to point out that Hutch's words held absolutely no conviction. When he was able to look back, he whispered, "Tough. You're stuck with me for the next two days."


    "I know I'm not as pretty as the nurses," the smaller man teased, "but I can promise I won't stick you with any needles."

    Hutch's eyes had closed again, and he simply nodded, accepting.

    Big baby.

    The twinge of guilt was there again, and Starsky rested his chin in his hand, the elbow of which was supported by a knee, which rested on the bed. He studied the smooth, pale features that he new so well, trying to find an answer to his unease.

    He reached out. I love you.

    "Hmm?" Hutch groaned softly, opening his eyes.

    Starsky's hand settled over the washcloth again. "How ya doin', tiger?"

    Hutch swallowed, though his expression remained peaceful. "I don't think I'm going to be able to sleep until I take something."

    "Feels better, though, doesn't it?"

    "Doesn't throb as much," came the muttered agreement. Then a cringe, "It just sort of... hurts. Even without the throb, there's a constant pain there."

    Starsky tried a reassuring smile, but it was twisted. Getting shot was no fun. He well remembered how long the soreness had lasted after his own wound had visibly healed. He watched the closed eyes a while longer, studied the way the mustache twisted, smoothed, then twisted again. If nothing else, conversation would give Hutch something else to think about until Huggy got there. "You know somethin'?"

    One eye slowly opened. "What?"

    "I think you were lying when you said you were lying about the number you were thinking of."

    The eyes opened fully, then narrowed in puzzlement. "What?"

    Surely, Hutch's mind was off the pain now. Starsky grinned. "You know, the morning before you were shot, and I was asking you questions to prove I had ESP. When we were wheeling you into the emergency room, you said you'd lied about the number you were thinking of."

    The expression relaxed slightly. "Oh."

    The curly-haired man cocked his head to one side. "I say you're lying. I really did guess the number you were thinking of. You just don't like admitting it."

    The blond took a deep, careful breath. "For goodness' sakes, it's really not all that godawful important, is it?"

    "It was important enough to you to feel like you had to make me believe you'd only pretended I guessed the right number. Or," Starsky eye's darted to the ceiling as a new thought occurred, "you can look at it another way and say it was important enough to you to let me believe I'd been right." Now the eyes dropped to meet the tired ones. "Which is it?"

    The pale face turned away. "Man, I don't believe this." Then Hutch looked back. "I don't remember, okay? I don't remember which number I thought of, or whether it was the same as what you guessed or not."

    It wasn't often that his calm, cool, college-educated partner got boxed into a corner. Starsky's tone grew sly. "Sure you remember. Why is it so hard for you to admit it?" Hutch sputtered a moment, and Starsky took pity, not wanting to take away his partner's right to be stubborn. Cheerfully, he suggested, "Let's try it again. Think of a number."

    Hutch looked away again, grumbling, "Ah, this is ridiculous."

    "What else have you got to do with your time? Come on, think of a number." Starsky closed his eyes and concentrated. He still heard grumbling noises, but knew his partner was obeying. It was rare that Hutch denied him anything.

    "All right, I have one," the reluctant voice informed him. "What is it?"

    Starsky took a moment longer to concentrate. Then his eyes opened. "Four."

    The blond's expression should have been immortalized in stone.

    The curly-haired man grinned crookedly. "I was right, wasn't I?"

    "Yeah," Hutch breathed in disbelief.

    The other snapped his fingers. "All right. I'm still batting a thousand."

    Now, the blond's expression was just shy of scolding. "Oh, Starsky, that's just coincidence. I mean, it's not like you're having precognitive dreams or anything."

    "What's that gotta do with it? Come on, let's try it again."

    Hutch grimaced. "Come on, this is a boring game. I don't wanna play."

    Not wanting to agitate the other, Starsky relented with a pitiful sigh. He reached for the washcloth, found it dry again. He took it in hand, then with the back of his other hand, pressed against a cheek. He blinked with surprise. "You feel a little cooler."

    "Told you all I needed to do was come home."

    "You didn't hear me arguing, did you?"

    "No," came the reply after a long moment. Then Hutch closed his eyes and snuggled a little further into the covers. "Thanks, buddy."

    "I'll re-wet this," Starsky said softly and moved away.

    When he returned, Hutch, eyes still closed, frowned heavily. "Man, I gotta piss."

    "Shoulda thought of that before you got into bed."

    "Yeah, yeah, yeah." Grimacing, Hutch opened his eyes and started to straighten.

    Starsky looked around for Hutch's robe, found it on the floor. He reached for his partner's good arm, then helped pull the taller man to his feet. He carefully draped the thick material around the slim shoulders, than patted the back. "You gonna make it okay?"

    The blond had swayed slightly, but then moved away with steady steps. "Yeah."

    Starsky sat back in his chair, watching the pale legs negotiate the remainder of the trip to the bathroom. He wished Huggy would hurry, for surely after moving around even the little amount required for Hutch to relieve himself was going to make the wound start throbbing again. They were going to have to start over once Hutch was settled in bed.

    Sighing to himself, the curly-haired man moved back to the kitchen. He wet the cloth again, then gave up and filled a large pan with cool water. He also filled a glass, anticipating the prescription's arrival.

    Within a couple of minutes Hutch was trudging back to the bed, shoulders hunched as he held the robe tightly about himself.

    "Hey, you okay?" Starsky asked as he moved to take an arm, guiding the other back to the bed.

    "Just feeling a little cold," Hutch noted quietly.

    Starsky brought his patient to a halt beside the bed. "Then let's get some undies on you." He turned to the nearest bureau and pulled out a t-shirt and boxer shorts. He turned around, t-shirt in hand. "Uh...."

    "Just tear the sleeve," the blond told him. Then with a hint of irritation, "I don't feel like messing with it again." He indicated the sling.

    "Okay." Starsky went in search of scissors, feeling bad again that Hutch was in such obvious pain. When he found a pair, he slit the left sleeve, then returned to his partner, who was still standing, but whose eyes looked a little glazed.

    "Come on," the smaller man said softly, pushing gently on the right shoulder. "Sit down."

    Hutch did, Starsky pulling the robe out of the way and letting it rest in the blond man's lap. He stretched the t-shirt wide and held it out. "Put your arm in there."

    Hutch put his right arm through the sleeve, then Starsky, as carefully as possible, stretched the neck wide and placed it over the blond head. It was still awkward, despite his best efforts, and once he was finally rolling the rest of it down the lean torso, he noted that his partner's eyes had watered. Head lowered, he whispered, "Sorry, buddy."

    Hutch took an unsteady breath, looking away. His reply carried a note of forced patience. "Not your fault."

    Starsky shelved his guilt, then grabbed the boxer shorts. He knelt before the other, silently holding them out, and Hutch placed his feet in them. The blond started to stand, helping Starsky pull them up, and a moment later they were snug around the lean hips.

    "Okay," the smaller man said with relief. He pulled the bed covers back. "In you go."

    Hutch gingerly scooted further onto the mattress and folded his legs under the blankets. They were readjusting the pillows when a knock sounded.

    "Terrific," Starsky exclaimed, sprinting toward the door. He opened it. "Hey, ya, Hug."

    The Bear presented a small sack. "Here it is. Hope it helps."

    Starsky took a step back. "Come in. How much?"

    The black man shook his head and stayed where he was. "I have to get back, don't like leavin' too much in the hands of the help, you know." He pointed to a label on the bag. "There it is. Not cheap."

    Inwardly, Starsky was glad that Huggy didn't want to socialize. Hutch wasn't up to company. The curly-haired man slapped some bills into the outstretched hand, including a generous tip. "Really appreciate this, Hug. Now maybe Hutch will be able to get some rest."

    "Hey, what are friends for, if not to keep Goldilocks in beauty sleep?" The black man turned away.

    "Right," Starsky grinned, closing the door. He moved back toward the bedroom, catching Hutch grimacing with eyes squeezed shut, just before they opened.

    "Didn't you invite him in?" the blond asked.

    "He didn't want to leave The Pits for too long." Starsky opened the bag and fished out the pill container. He held up the bottle and read the label. "Your basic 'two every four hours'." He worked with the childproof cap a moment, then poured out a couple of capsules. "Here, put them on the back of your tongue, one at a time."

    Hutch gave him a baleful look. "I know how to swallow pills, moron."

    "Then swallow them, then."

    Starsky passed the water, then took it back after both capsules had been downed. "We'll give 'em a chance to work, then take your temperature again." As he spoke, he put a hand to Hutch's forehead and felt a thin sheen of moisture. "Can I get you anything else? Tea? A sandwich maybe?"

    Hutch closed his eyes and sighed. "No. I just want to sleep long enough so that when I wake up it doesn't hurt anymore."

    The tone was bland, and Starsky felt the guilt kick back in. He reached for the washcloth, rinsed it in the pan of water, then patted it against Hutch's face.

    This time the sigh was a pleasant sound. "Feels good," said a soft whisper.

    Starsky smiled at the closed eyes. He rested his left hand against Hutch's good shoulder, while his right pressed gently against the cloth. All was silent for the next few minutes, and after rinsing the cloth out again, he dabbed it against Hutch's cheeks, then neck, then chest.

    A quiet voice noted, "It's starting to work." But the tone wasn't particularly pleased, and an explanation followed. "I hate feeling doped up." Hutch opened his eyes.

    Starsky glanced away a brief moment. "I know." He lightly patted the shoulder. "I'm gonna be right here." He waited until Hutch's eyes closed again, then frowned. The incident with the heroin had robbed his partner of a lot of simple pleasures previously taken for granted. Hutch didn't even drink beer as much as he used to. It seemed that any substance which could be pleasing threatened the blond's security that he could resist its powers.

    Damn Ben Forest and Alan Monk and the rest of their cronies.

    Hutch's breath got heavier, and Starsky discarded his intention to retake his temperature. He also let the washcloth be.

    He waited for the breathing to get deeper, but after a few moments tired eyes opened partway.

    Starsky smiled warmly at them, whispering, "Need anything?"

    In answer, they merely closed again. But a few moments later they were open again, though not very clear.

    Starsky placed a hand in the blond strands. "Will you let me take your temperature again, or are you goin' back to sleep?"

    Hutch blinked, as though it took a moment for the words to register. "Whatever."

    Starsky thought it could be the only chance he got for a number of hours. He picked up the thermometer and shook it down. The pale face was now turned away, the eyes closed. "Open up." The mouth barely moved, but it was enough for Starsky to insert it. "Under your tongue?" he verified.

    A barely audible "Uh-hm" was his answer.

    Starsky kept hold of the instrument, not trusting it to the care of the blond's lax mouth. A moment later he thought his partner may have actually drifted off, for the other suddenly grunted with a mild start.

    The smaller man held the thermometer more firmly. "Just a little longer, pal."

    Hutch swallowed, made other small gestures that proved he wasn't asleep.

    Finally, Starsky removed the glass instrument. After reading it, he smiled and gently noted, "Progress, buddy. It's down to ninety-nine point six."

    "Mm," was the response.

    Starsky stood, settled the covers more firmly around the other, then found a hand. He squeezed it. "I'm just gonna be on the couch, if you need anything." He waited until receiving the barest hint of a nod.

    He stayed minutes longer, making sure the breathing was even and deep, before moving away from the bed.

    Letting his weariness overtake him, Starsky lethargically went about the task of making a bologna sandwich from bread that was too dry. A liberal helping of mayonnaise helped only slightly. But it didn't matter, for he hardly tasted it, his mind insistent on replaying an evening from three years previously.

    A dark and stormy night.

    Even now, Starsky flexed his left shoulder blade, flinching from the memory of the pain that had once flourished there.

    He found an open bottle of cola in the fridge. The taste was flat, but he tolerated a few sips to push down the bread that had lodged against his throat. Then he made his way to the sofa, glad that the curtains were fairly effective at blocking out the mid-afternoon sun. Starsky sat down and pulled off his shoes, then his outer shirt. He selected a sofa pillow, punched it, then lay down, bringing the afghan from the back of the couch with him.

    He was lying on his left side. In his mind's eye, Hutch's apartment changed into a small office, the lightning's reflection bouncing off the walls.

    His heart had been beating with panic. He'd been shot. It didn't matter that, for the moment, he was alive. The fear still hovered about, threatening his ability to act and reason.

    But he didn't need to act. Nor reason. Hutch was taking care of everything.

    He had gotten very fond of one lanky, corduroy knee that night. Wrapping his arms around it. Clinging to it. Clutching it. Reaching for it in the worst moments of pain and fear.

    Hands had been all over him. Applying pressure to stop the bleeding, thereby also giving the pain something to brace against. A constant stream of reassuring words. The most incredible, gentle hands. Non-stop touching.

    And the fear had gone away, the panic being replaced by reason.

    And then he'd been given a task. Throw the pitcher against the wall. And he'd done it. And heard the shots. And was afraid all over again... but not for himself.

    And then arms were holding him, hands soothing him, fingers feeling for further injury. And such a tender voice talking to him, babying him, gently laughing with him.

    And then it was over. And he felt on top of the world. And some part of him knew that a new chapter should be added to books on how to treat gunshot wounds. The chapter's introduction should read, "First you need a partner who loves you...."

    It hadn't been until three months later, after he was completely healed -- save an occasional twinge -- that Starsky become aware of something gnawing at the back of his mind. His perspective on that particular evening came from a very narrow view. He'd been in the back office throughout the incident. Of course, he'd asked Hutch all the details while still in the hospital, and he'd been given the facts. But that's all they were: facts.

    Eventually, Starsky had gone to see Theresa, the waitress from that night. She had been put on probation for her hesitant involvement in the planned hit on Vic Monty, and had taken a job at another restaurant. At first, she'd been afraid to talk to Starsky, not wanting to have anything else to do with mobsters, hit men, or cops. But once she seemed to realize that his reasons for wanting details were merely his own personal ones, and would have no consequences for her, she began to tell him her recollections of that same night.

    "Your partner is a hero," she concluded. "He saved everybody -- me, the cook, the other customers, you... even Vic Monty. All by himself."

    And the latter, Starsky had realized, was the reason for the unease that had gnawed at him. He and Hutch were partners. They were supposed to go through things together -- the good, the bad, and everything in between. But he'd not only been unable to accompany his partner on his heroics, he'd downright been a burden.

    And, with all that baggage, Hutch had still come through.

    And Starsky had never considered himself a burden while lying on the couch in that dark office. He'd only been aware of the love.

    The dark room was once again enclosed by the secure walls of Hutch's apartment. Starsky listened to the ticking of the wall clock, wondering at, as he often had since talking to Theresa, the mental strength his partner possessed. Wondering how deep the well ran. Hoping that he'd never have to find out.

    He wondered, if their positions had been reversed, if he would have played the situation as coolly as Hutch had. If he would have been able to get all those people out of there alive, be so patiently calculating while worried about his partner.

    He certainly hadn't been cool in this situation, after Hutch had been shot. Even after he knew Hutch was going to be fine, the anxiety from being worried, and being apart, had made him snappish and difficult. Thankfully, Meredith hadn't been the least bit intimidated. And they had done what they needed to do -- find the ones responsible.

    And, yet, still, it was Hutch who had ended up being the real hero. Escaped from the hospital, wandering around in his bloodied shirt and in pain, figuring out the mechanics of the case, deducing where Starsky and Meredith were being held. Coming with Captain Dobey to save the day.

    Between us, he's always been the strongest.

    Starsky felt no jealousy. In fact, was grateful that such dependable strength was protecting his back day in and day out.

    He's only weak when he knows it's safe to be -- when I'm around to be strong for him.

    And he hadn't been around after Hutch had been shot.

    The guilt was there again. Starsky decided to quit fighting it. He rolled unto his back, hand behind his head, and stared at the ceiling. The sun had gone down, and the apartment was now dark.

    Eventually, he drifted into a light doze. Then he was awakened by a soft groan from the bedroom.

    Starsky considered turning on a light, but there was enough light from the street lamp outside the window that he was able to tiptoe to where the bed was. "Hutch?" he inquired softly.

    The reply was only partially conscious. "Huh?"

    The smaller detective moved nearer the bed. "You okay?"

    "Yeah," came the soft reply. Then a definite groan was heard as the sheets rustled.

    Starsky found a standing lamp in a far corner, and switched it on. Its illumination showed a twisted face as Hutch gingerly shifted.

    The standing man moved closer. "Hey, what is it?"

    Now a wrenched frown. "I'm tired of sleeping like this."

    Starsky was beside the bed now, reaching for the pillows. Softly, he said, "Here, maybe you can shift to your right side."

    Irritably, Hutch said, "I can't sleep on my right side."

    "Wanna try flat on your back?" Starsky was reaching for solutions, and knew that it was a bad suggestion.

    "No. It'll put too much weight on my shoulder."

    "Then maybe sit up straighter."

    And impatient sigh, then a subdued, "I don't know. Maybe."

    "Then hold still a minute and quit movin' around. Give me a chance to fix the pillows."

    Hutch carefully straightened, leaning forward as Starsky worked.

    "How's the pain?"

    "Fine until I woke up."

    "Yeah, you were sleeping real good there." Starsky was still fussing with the pillows.

    "What time is it?"

    "Too soon for more pills," Starsky replied regretfully, patting the pillows with finality. He paused, then placed his hand on a cotton-clad shoulder. "Okay, try that." Gingerly, Hutch lay back, now almost in a sitting up position. "Better?"

    "A little," came the unenthusiastic reply.

    Starsky knelt on the mattress, letting the springs take his weight. Then he slipped an arm around Hutch's waist and rested his cheek against the blond hair.

    There was a moment of stillness, then a suspicious, "What's that for?"

    The arm remained where it was, but Starsky pulled his head away to look at his partner. His tone was mildly scolding. "Since when do we need reasons?"

    Hutch had the grace to flick his eyes away. He relaxed again, and Starsky resumed his position. The smaller man waited a few minutes before speaking again. "You know, it was kind of hard, being worried about you, but also wanting to get back on the street and nail those responsible."

    "And you did," Hutch replied with soft firmness, the tone carrying a hint of puzzlement.

    "I know. But I missed being with you when... you know," Starsky shrugged lamely, "you needed me."

    The voice was much more awake now. "I was fine, Starsk. That was apparent almost immediately. I mean," Hutch's voice softened, "I was kind of scared -- you know, just the idea of being shot -- but I knew, deep down, that I never was in any real danger." Carefully, Hutch tilted his head back, stopping when his eyes met the other man's. "Hey, you having an attack of the guilts or something?"

    In answer, Starsky shrugged.

    "That's dumb, dummy. You did the right thing, got the bad guys. You didn't need to be there. I'm fine."

    Starsky didn't reply, and he sensed that Hutch knew as well as he did that being "fine" wasn't the issue.

    He had never been very good at holding things in, especially when it wasn't necessary. Starsky felt life was a lot easier if one just said what was on their mind -- especially if the person they were speaking to was the one in the world who understood them most. Gently, he explained, "I just wanted to be with you. When you were hurting most, and scared. As soon as we brought you in, they wouldn't let me near you." Sourly, he said, "You know, hospital regulations and all that."

    "Yeah," Hutch breathed sympathetically. "We've both been on both sides of that wall, buddy."

    It felt good talking about it, even if there were no solutions to be sought. Starsky felt himself cheered. He shifted on the bed. "But there's no walls here, partner."

    The blond was suspicious again. "Meaning what?"

    Starsky beckoned Hutch to lean forward and starting adjusting the pillows again. "Sure you can't sleep on your right side?" he asked in a challenging tone.

    "Never been able to," Hutch confirmed with finality.

    Cheerfully, the smaller man said, "Maybe you just never had the proper bedding arrangement. Here, scoot forward a little more. Easy."

    Hutch was trying to obey, and Starsky assisted him as carefully as possible. It took a few moments, but the darker man finally had everything arranged like he wanted. He stood and pushed down his jeans.

    "What are you up to?" the blond asked as the socks were discarded.

    "Just making us both a little more comfortable." Starsky quickly turned off the corner lamp, then slowly sat on the mattress between Hutch and the headboard. He slid closer to the center of the mattress. Then he leaned back against the pillows.

    "Hey... who invited you?"

    "Hush." Starsky grabbed a pillow, put it in his lap, then gently placed his hands on Hutch's sides. "Okay, partner, lay down slow and easy and put your head right here."

    The blond was looking behind him and seemed to understand the intent. Very carefully, he slid down on his right side. At first, his head landed on Starsky's stomach, and he slowly inched further down the mattress, until he was able to lie on the pillow.

    "There. Comfy?"

    Blandly, Hutch replied, "I don't know if I can sleep like this."

    "You can, you can," Starsky assured in a whisper. To emphasize his promise, he slowly rubbed one hand along the cotton-clad spine. His other hand settled in the fine strands of hair and gently massaged.

    "Your muscles are going to get all cramped," Hutch scolded, "if you think you're going to sleep like that all night."

    Well, for now, his muscles weren't complaining. Starsky had his big, beautiful blond right where he wanted him. "Hey, if you want me to get up," he said firmly, "just say so."

    Hutch didn't say so.

    Big baby.

    After a time, both their eyes closed. But Starsky's hands kept moving.

    A soft whisper penetrated the darkness. "Hey, Starsk?"


    "Thanks for bringing me home."

    Eyes still closed, Starsky smiled. "You're welcome."

    The blond's voice was more muffled when it said, "I think I'm going to sleep now."

    "I'll be right here if you need anything."

    Even after he heard the even, deep breathing, Starsky's hands continued to express his love. And his hero slept through until morning.


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