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Hutch put the mars light on the roof as the Torino careened around a corner, tires squealing in the quiet of the night.
"Dammit!" Starsky swore, hunched over the wheel. "He's heading for the park."
Hutch studied the stride of the big lumbering man in the distance. The man, George Monroe, had just committed the third in a string of liquor store robberies. This time the police had been called in time to pursue. "He's getting tired. Let me out." The blond detective's hand was already on the door handle.
Just as the Torino skidded to a partial halt, the suspect ducked into a thicket of trees outlining the park. Hutch jumped out at a run and headed in the same direction. He couldn't see his prey until he had woven his way through the clump of trees, but when he emerged into a clearing, he spotted Monroe's tall form moving along the edge of Webster Lake.
The suspect's shortening stride encouraged Hutch to increase his own speed. The detective considered drawing his weapon, but he would have to slow down to do so. He felt a pang of regret that he no longer exercised as regularly as he used to. Thankfully, Monroe was barely moving faster than a trot and could be heard gasping for breath.
Hutch's own stride increased even more, spurred by the assurance of catching the man. Ten yards…nine… eight....
When he judged himself close enough, Hutch leapt upon Monroe, grabbing him by the shoulders and pulling him down to the lake's muddy edge. They landed together and Hutch, less winded, was on his knees first. He was about to grab the man's arm when a large hand gripped his side and flung him into the shallow water. Amazed at the other's strength, Hutch ignored the sting from the trickle of water that went up his nose. Instead, he reached for his pistol, and then felt Monroe's strength again as hands pushed at his chest, causing him to fall back into the lake. His face went under the surface, and Hutch kicked out with his feet, feeling them hit something solid. He emerged into the air, desperate to capitalize on his advantage. But Monroe still had his footing, and Hutch had a feeling of dread as he was grabbed by his shirt collar and thrown with such force that he landed in a deeper part of the lake.
His wet gun would be useless, and he couldn't see anything in the darkness of the water. Hutch came up, fists ready, but the moment he emerged, his head was pushed back under.
The blond grabbed at the restraining hand with both arms, but the strength of the grip was such that it didn't budge. He tried to kick himself upward, but it only caused Monroe to push harder, holding him beneath the water.
When watching nature programs on television, Hutch had always wondered what went through a zebra's mind when it was attacked by a lion, or a mouse's when it was grabbed by an owl, or an insect's when it was ensnared in a spider's web… and now he knew. Now he had come face to face with the utter sense of helplessness when at the mercy of one stronger.
His air had almost run out, and Hutch made use of what little strength he had left to kick desperately with his feet, but the hand on his head pushed him lower so that his cheek brushed against the soft bed of the lake. Hutch reached again with his hands, and the effort caused him to lose his breath. Filthy-tasting water rushed into his mouth, forcing itself down his tired throat.
He felt bitter anger now, for it wasn't supposed to end like this. As he began to lose consciousness, he wondered where Starsky was...
...and he was distantly aware of being pulled rapidly upward. He was puzzled that he could feel a ferocious stinging as his scalp almost seemed to separate from his skull...
...and there was air again, for his skin felt it, but he couldn't seem to breathe....
Something jabbed at his stomach, and the water rushed out in a painful surge. His body seemed to turn inside out, as all his insides rushed up his throat, spilling from his mouth and nose.
He still couldn't breathe as the purging went on, and he quivered and trembled as he threw up more water, desperate to take in air, certain he was dying.
Finally, amidst more vomiting of fluids, he felt himself inhale, and something liquid-free made its way into his lungs. Frantic for more of the sweet substance, he tried to inhale more deeply… and something went wrong, and the soft tissues of his insides protested once again, causing him to sputter and choke, forcing more water up his throat and nose.
When the spasm ended, he realized he was shaking violently from head to toe. Arms were around him, holding him from behind, a voice chanting to him like a machine gun... "ItsokayItsokay. You'regonnabeallright. You'regonnabefinebabe. Gonnabefine. Justfine. It's okay. It's okay." A hand was massaging up and down his arm.
He could breathe. He was going to live. But even as Hutch realized that fact, his stomach contorted yet again, and he strained against the pain as it forced more water from him.
The hand rested on his back now. "You're gonna be okay, Hutch. It's gonna be okay."
When this latest spasm ended, Hutch felt completely devoid of strength. He would have fallen to the damp ground on his face, except that Starsky now heaved him into a sitting position so that he was resting back against his partner. He felt light-headed but was glad to be sitting up, for it seemed easier for the air to reach his lungs.
"Man," Starsky's voice trembled near his ear, "that was a close one."
Poor Starsk. So gentle and giving and loving. Hutch felt bad that he had shaken the other up.
The park suddenly came alive as sirens approached and there was the chatter of onlookers.
Hutch wanted to ask Starsky what had happened to their suspect; but instead of words, a fit of coughing emerged from his throat, and he felt a hand on his forehead as he leaned to one side to purge himself yet again. The coughing made him realize how much his throat ached.
Uniformed officers were near now. Hutch settled back against Starsky, his gaze on the ground, for he hadn't the strength to look any higher. He thought he heard someone say something about an ambulance, and there being a mention of the suspect's body, and from traces of conversation the blond gathered that Starsky had killed the man.
Blankets appeared beside them.
"Good," he heard Starsky say, and his partner began tearing at his shirt.
Other hands were helping, unsnapping his holster, moving his arms, but Starsky was doing most of the work, for which Hutch was grateful. As it was, he felt uncomfortable with the other cops -- most younger than he -- seeing him like this. The uniforms tended to look up to the plainclothes, and he and Starsky had a reputation of toughness to uphold.
His shirt was pulled free and blankets were bundled around his upper body. Starsky's arm tightened around him, pressing the cloth closer, and Hutch was grateful for the warmth. He was still trembling, though, and wished he could make it stop.
"Can you breathe okay?" Starsky whispered near his ear in a worried tone. "Am I squeezing too tight?"
Hutch wanted to say, "I'm okay," but was afraid his raw throat wouldn't get the words out. So he heard himself make a gruff, "no" sound while trying to nod his meaning.
The arms squeezed a little firmer, criss-crossed over the front of his body, hands rubbing up and down his arms. "Gonna be okay, Blintz. That was a close one, but it's gonna be okay."
The nickname made Hutch smile… at least on the inside. He didn't have the strength to show anything outwardly. The other cops had apparently stepped back to secure the scene, and he was grateful that he and Starsky were being left in relative privacy.
A feeling of security began to seep in, and it allowed him to focus on something else besides his partner and breathing. He realized he was tasting an awful filth in his throat and mouth, and he thought of the lake, which was hardly larger than a pond. Fish inhabited it. Ducks and geese lived on it. And he had swallowed all their refuse....
The nausea was abrupt and overwhelming. Hutch gasped with dread as his tender stomach turned in on itself once again. He catapulted to one side, and felt a steadying hand on his forehead, another holding his chest as fluid once again burst from his mouth. Only this time he didn't taste the filth of the water as much as the acid of bile.
"Easy, Hutch. Easy. Easy."
The contractions had left Hutch desperate for air, and he coughed repeatedly as he tried to replenish the supply to his lungs.
Fingers massaged his shoulders. "Relax. Try to relax."
Hutch tried to do as commanded, and allowed himself to be pressed back against his partner. The coughing finally stopped, and he closed his eyes gratefully.
The hand that was on his forehead moved up into his hair. There, it petted instead of pulled, and Hutch realized then that it had obviously been Starsky who had dragged him from the water after shooting their suspect.
He turned his head to press his cheek against Starsky's chest and was tempted to yield to the exhaustion, but a new siren shattered his peace, as it stopped mere yards from where they sat near the lake's edge.
Even as there was the banging of doors as the paramedics gathered their equipment, Starsky was quickly detailing what had happened.
"What's his name?" the closest paramedic asked, who settled on the ground beside them.
"Hutchinson. Everyone calls him Hutch."
"All right, Hutch, we're just going to check you out. Sounds like you had a bit of a scare."
Hutch managed the barest hint of a nod. Since he knew they would want him to be responsive, he finally made the effort to raise his eyes and watch while three paramedics gathered around him.
"Are you a relative?" one of them asked Starsky.
"His partner," came the firm reply. It was said in a tone that Hutch recognized; the one that declared, "I got rights."
"Do you know if he's on medication of any kind?"
Hutch was grateful that they were directing their questions at Starsky so he didn't have to make the effort to speak.
"No, he's not."
"What about allergies. Does he have any of those?"
"He's allergic to morphine."
Hutch wished he weren't so tired, for it made it difficult to fight off emotion. For he felt a strong wave of feeling now. Allergic to morphine? That was hardly the term. But it was a careful way of making sure they wouldn't give him any.
"Did he lose consciousness at any time? Did he have to be revived?"
"No, but I when I pulled him out he was throwin' up water like crazy and coughin' a lot."
They had all their instruments out. They took his blood pressure, his pulse, told him to take deep breaths as they pressed a stethoscope against his chest, shone a tiny flashlight into each of his eyes. They inserted small tubes into his nostrils, and he relaxed once he realized it was only oxygen and wasn't going to hurt.
"Hutch, how are you feeling?"
Hutch blinked, rousing himself to answer the paramedic's question, for he realized it was directed at him. He wanted to reply, "I'm okay," mainly to reassure his partner, but he knew the paramedics wanted a more detailed answer. "Kinda shaky." Then he realized, "Cold." The blanket felt good around him, but they had lowered it to prod at him, causing Starsky to loosen his hold. And the wet jeans didn't help.
"Do you hurt anywhere?'
His stomach and his throat hurt like hell from throwing up, but he knew they didn't mean that. "No." He was annoyed that his voice trembled.
A hand petted through his hair. "You're gonna be okay, Hutch."
Starsky's voice sounded anxious, and Hutch wished he could reassure him. Surely, it was obvious to everyone that he was going to live.
He heard one of the paramedics mention "saline drip" and he turned his head to press his cheek against his partner. His eyes were closed but he couldn't block out the sounds of plastic bags being pulled apart, and the other noises associated with the preparation of the IV.
"Is he right-handed?"
Starsky tightened his hold. "Yeah."
Hutch told himself to handle it like he did at the dentist. Accept the sting and don't fight it and it won't be so bad.
He didn't fight it, but his closed eyes still watered when his flesh was punctured. And he wished he could block out the noises of it being taped into place.
"You're gonna be fine, Hutch. Just fine." His partner was rubbing warmth into his shoulders.
There was a tickle at the back of his throat. He tried to ignore it because he didn't want to alarm everybody, but finally he yielded and coughed a few times. Thankfully, it wasn't as racking as it had been earlier.
"Let's go ahead and put him on the board," he heard one paramedic tell the others.
"Why do you need to do that?" Starsky asked worriedly. It was a question Hutch was tempted to ask himself.
"It's just a precaution," came the soothing reply. "Until we can be certain of any injuries, he should be moved as little as possible."
His partner was silent, but Hutch could imagine what Starsky was thinking. If it turned out he had any spinal injuries, then Starsky had done the wrong thing by allowing him to sit up. But Hutch was certain he didn't have any injuries, and he knew he'd been able to breathe easier in an upright position.
Finally, his sanctuary ended for Starsky's grip loosened, then disappeared, as a myriad of hands moved him onto a hard wooden board.
"Starsky," a vaguely familiar voice said, "if you want to ride with him, I'll take the Torino in."
Peterson. A uniformed officer they both knew. Good man.
They heaved him and the board onto a stretcher, and then he felt himself lifted into the air as the stretcher was rolled into the ambulance. Hutch closed his eyes as people took their places at his side, because he didn't want to watch them stare at him. He moved his head slightly, for the hardness of the board was hurting the back of his head.
A paramedic reprimanded him. "Don't move your head."
Fingers stroked at his shoulder beneath the blanket as the siren was turned on and they began to move. "You're gonna be okay, Hutch. You're gonna be just fine."
He must have fallen asleep during part of it, because he only vaguely remembered being wheeled down the hall and re-answering questions when he arrived at the emergency room. Then he made a point of pretending he was asleep when they began to cut away his jeans and underwear. He wondered if his underwear was dirty.
His embarrassment was overtaken by gratitude when warm blankets were wrapped about his lower body.
The voice was masculine and firm, but also gentle. He opened his eyes and saw himself looking up at an older, kind face with a short, gray beard.
"I'm Dr. Blanton. How are you feeling right now?"
"Tired," he heard himself say in a tone to match.
The doctor nodded. "That's normal in this situation. You used up a lot of adrenaline fighting to stay alive." A pause. "Do you feel any discomfort anywhere?"
He answered without thinking. "My head hurts from the board."
A tiny smile. "We'll take you off it once we're certain you have no spinal injuries, is there any other pain or discomfort?"
Another nod. "It sounds like you were pretty lucky. We're going to take you down for a chest x-ray to make sure you don't have any water in your lungs and that there's no broken bones."
"Then what?" Hutch managed.
"We'll continue to monitor your vitals. Do you have any open sores, or recent cuts or other wounds?"
Puzzled, Hutch barely shook his head. "No."
"Good. I asked because you took in a lot of water from the lake. Unfortunately, lakes in parks tend to be full of bacteria."
Hutch closed his eyes again, swallowing reluctantly. He could still taste the filth.
"An orderly will be here soon to take you down to x-ray. In the meantime," the doctor reached to the tubes up his nose, "we can take this out." Once the oxygen device was put aside, the doctor said, "Go ahead and rest for a while."
Hutch let his eyes wander around the room after the doctor left. A nurse was in the far corner, but she was looking through a supply cabinet and didn't seem concerned about him. No one else was around. He wondered where Starsky was.
After a time, an orderly came and wheeled him to another floor. There, he was left waiting in the hall until another man came and wheeled him into x-ray. Thankfully, that procedure was brief, and he eventually found himself back in the emergency room. Once the orderly left, he was alone.
He dozed briefly until he heard the soft sound of the door opening. He opened his eyes and found his partner, jeans covered with mud, approaching with a large smile.
"Hey, Blintz, how ya doin'?"
Hutch managed a tired smile of his own. "Where have you been?" His throat hurt when he talked and it made his voice gruff.
"Fillin' out the paperwork. I called Dobey, too. He's gonna be by."
Hutch wondered if anything had gone on while he was being wheeled around. "Did the doctor talk to you?"
"Yeah. He's making noises about you stayin' overnight. You know, just to make sure you're okay."
Hutch sighed. "Then talk them out of it. I don't want to stay."
Starsky laid a hand on the blanket over his chest. "Just wanna go home, huh?"
"I don't know, Hutch. Doc knows best. Most of the time, anyway."
Hutch was too tired to argue about it. But fatigue was the very reason he didn't want to stay. If they put him up in a room, there would be constant interruptions, probably more needles, and the impossibility of sleeping soundly in a strange place.
The other was playing with the IV tube, and turned obediently. "Hm?"
"My feet are cold."
Starsky turned to the end of the stretcher. "Even with the blanket?"
Starsky curled his hands around the blanketed toes and rubbed briskly. "Better?"
Hutch felt himself smile. "Mm."
"What about the rest of ya?"
Hutch didn't reply immediately. The rest of his body didn't feel too cold. But... he waited until Starsky was back near his head, then softly admitted, "Still feelin' a little shaky." To prove it, he pulled his hand from beneath the blanket and held it up. It visibly trembled, though he was sure it wasn't as bad as it had been at the lake.
Gently, Starsky said, "That's probably why they wanna keep you overnight, just to make sure you're okay."
"My vitals are all normal," Hutch argued as he put his hand back under the blanket. "I heard them talking."
Starsky started to reply, then suddenly straightened and looked back toward the door. "I think I hear Dobey."
Hutch looked down at himself. "Am I covered up?" After speaking, he realized how silly the question was, but it did make him uncomfortable to have a superior looking at him when he was less than fully dressed. He was grateful that Starsky understood, for the other tucked the blankets more firmly around him.
Just then the door opened and Dobey entered, wearing a gentle smile. "Well," he said as he approached, "it doesn't look like you're too worse for the wear. The way I heard it, you were pretty lucky."
Hutch managed a nod. "Yeah. He was one strong son of a gun. He seemed so tired from running that I had no idea he would have that kind of strength left to fight."
"It's no wonder. Monroe did professional wrestling on the side."
Hutch didn't have a reply to that. It didn't matter now. The man was dead.
The door swung open again and the doctor entered. "Mr. Hutchinson?"
Dobey and Starsky stepped to one side. "I'll wait in the hall," the black man said.
Hutch tried another smile. "Thanks, Cap'n."
The doctor moved next to the gurney. "The x-rays came back clean. But since you took in so much water, we want to keep you overnight, just to be sure you're all right."
Hutch frowned and cleared his throat in preparation for a protest.
Starsky stepped forward. "Doc, Hutch doesn't rest very well in hospitals. I'll take him home and stay with him tonight, keep an eye on him."
The doctor sighed. "I can't force him to stay, but -- "
"I'll sign whatever papers you want to sign," Hutch put in quickly, speaking more clearly than he had since the near-drowning. He wanted to push his advantage.
"Okay, then," the doctor said. He turned toward Starsky. "If he develops a fever in the next day or so, be sure and bring him back in."
"Gotcha," Starsky replied with enthusiasm. He leaned over Hutch. "I think I got some sweats in the trunk of my car. Be right back." And he was gone.
The doctor began undoing the straps to the spine board. "May as well get you out of this."
When the straps were undone the blanket was lifted, and Hutch was gently pushed to one side as the board was removed from beneath him. He sighed gratefully as he laid his head back against a soft pillow and the doctor re-covered him.
A nurse came in and removed the IV. Hutch started to feel human again. "Okay," the doctor said, "why don't you go ahead and sit up, slowly."
Hutch braced against the gurney and carefully raised himself up. Though he wasn't dizzy, he was amazed at the weakness he felt throughout his body. He didn't dare voice it.
But the doctor seemed to know. "Are you scheduled for work tomorrow?"
Hutch nodded. He was holding the blanket against his upper body, for the air felt chilly against his bare shoulders.
"I'll write you out a slip excusing you from work. It's very important that you spend the remainder of tonight and all day tomorrow resting. Even though you feel fine right now, you've had a lot taken out of you."
Starsky entered just as the doctor moved toward the door.
"I'II have a nurse bring all your paperwork in," the physician said before exiting.
"Here," Starsky held out a sweatshirt. As Hutch took it, his partner said, "Uh, it hasn't been washed since I last played tennis in it." He quickly added, "But that was months ago."
Hutch didn't care just as long as it got him out of there. He pulled the shirt over his head, slipped his arms into it. After doing so, he was amazed at the lethargy that drifted through him. Nevertheless, he pushed himself off the gurney, taking the sweat pants from Starsky's hands.
"Where are your shoes?" Starsky asked, looking around. Then he bent to look in a basket beneath the gurney. "Oh, here they are. They're still wet."
Hutch slowly pulled the sweats up his legs. The warm fleece felt good. "I'll go barefoot. How far is the car?"
A nurse came in with a clipboard. "Mr. Hutchinson, just sign right here," she said, marking an "x" at the bottom of the form. He leaned the clipboard against the gurney as he signed it. She handed him a slip. "And here's your excuse from work. Please call Dr. Blanton if you have any problems."
"Thanks," Hutch said. He was grateful when Starsky took charge of the items.
Then his friend gripped his arm. "Ready?"
Hutch nodded and allowed himself to be led out the door.
They didn't talk on the way to Venice Place. Hutch rested his head against the passenger window, yielding to the weariness. He felt all he wanted to do was sleep so he didn't have to think about anything else.
Starsky gripped his waist as they negotiated the stairs. It was also his partner who unlocked the door, reached in to turn on the light, then stepped back to let Hutch enter first.
The blond went to the kitchen.
"Hungry?" Starsky asked from behind him.
Hutch shook his head. "No," he replied gruffly. "I just want some milk or something to wash the taste out of my throat."
Gently, Starsky said, "Maybe we should heat it up first."
Hutch was still trembling slightly and warm milk sounded good. But he didn't want to wait while it was heated. "Uh-uh." He reached for the carton of milk, poured it into the glass that Starsky held out. The other stood near while Hutch drank it.
The hovering was irritating, but Hutch couldn't feel mad because he understood it. "I'm gonna start a warm bath," Starsky said, turning away.
Great. More water. Like he hadn't had enough to last a lifetime.
But as Hutch finished his milk, he was slightly surprised to realize that he didn't fear the thought of water. In fact, the idea of immersing himself in warm -- and clean -- water was appealing.
While the tub was filling, Starsky appeared from the bathroom with something in his hand. "Does your throat hurt?"
Hutch swallowed. His throat was raw, though the milk had helped wash down the filthy taste. "Yeah."
"Here, I found some lozenges."
Hutch accepted the one Starsky held out and put it in his mouth. He wasn't fond of the medicinal flavor, but he could feel its soothing effect in a matter of moments.
He went into the bathroom, grateful that Starsky didn't follow. A glance at the tub revealed that the deepening water was topped by a layer of bubbles. Hutch wasn't particularly fond of the substance, but Starsky had gotten him the bubble concoction from an expensive specialty store for his birthday. It wasn't so much for Hutch personally as for "any lovelies you might happen to share the tub with." Hutch grimaced. He couldn't quite remember the last time a "lovely" had made her way to his apartment, let alone his bathtub.
He pulled off his sweats, then reached to turn off the water, even though the tub wasn't full. He got in and relaxed in the warm water that came up just to his waist. He didn't intend to stay long. All he wanted to do was wash the filth off, then sleep.
He had left the bathroom door partially open, and as he bathed he listened to the noises of Starsky making something to eat. He imagined it was probably a sandwich from the leftover roast beef.
Finishing by bending over to run water through his hair, Hutch let out the drain and climbed from the tub. He took his robe from the hook on the back of the door and wrapped it around himself. Then he dried his hair with a towel.
He felt much better.
"Ready for bed?" Starsky asked from the kitchen table.
"Yeah," Hutch replied with a sigh. The exhaled breath reminded him how sore his stomach was.
Starsky put a few dishes into the sink, then started turning off lights.
Hutch went to the sleeping area and pulled out a pair of boxer shorts, which he slipped into. After hesitating, he also pulled out an undershirt, wanting its warmth. He took off the robe and drew the cotton fabric over his head.
As he got into bed and curled onto his left side, Hutch sensed that something was being left unsaid. It was odd that his partner hadn't made any attempt to tuck him in or even mutter a goodnight.
After the apartment was dark, he listened to the soft sounds that indicated his visitor was undressing. Moments later Hutch felt the mattress bobble. Then there was the movement of the covers. And then a warm, cotton-covered form slid behind him, pressing near.
It had been a Close Call, which meant Starsky had rights.
Hutch was certain the other's nearness wouldn't disturb him, for he was tired enough to sleep. A hand reached over his shoulder, beneath the blanket, felt along his chest. It brushed against his arm, trailed its way down to his hand. Then it entwined their fingers.
He felt Starsky relax behind him.
Hutch closed his eyes. Within minutes he was asleep....
...and he was coughing and sputtering, desperate for air, drowning in filthy water. His stomach heaved, and he pitched forward, acid and calcium shooting up his throat.
He was clinging to the edge of the mattress. Thick liquid poured from his lips as sweat popped out along his forehead.
An arm tightened around his chest as warmth pressed close against his back. "Easy, Hutch," a soft voice soothed as a hand massaged his shoulder. "Easy does it. Easy. Easy."
The spasm ended, leaving him perched over the edge of the mattress, gasping with exhaustion.
His shoulder was squeezed again. Then, gently, "Was that the milk?"
Hutch scooted back just enough to rest his cheek against the edge of the bed. "Yeah." The smell began to penetrate, and he rolled onto his back, wiping at his mouth with the back of his hand.
The mattress rattled and a moment later the lamp from the other side of the bed came on. Then Starsky was on his feet.
Hutch frowned. Irritably, he said, "Leave it. I'll clean it up in the morning." Lord knows, his partner had done far more than his share of cleaning up after him in their years together. And he certainly didn't have the strength to deal with it now.
"Just take a sec," Starsky assured, disappearing into the kitchen.
Hutch lay on his back, staring at the ceiling. He wondered why it was that people as gentle and caring as Starsky were the ones who got stuck doing the worse sort of things.
When Starsky returned, so did the blond's irritation. But Hutch remained silent as he listened to noises of the floor being cleaned.
"Were you dreaming?"
Hutch turned his head toward his partner. Starsky was looking up at him, holding the rag, expression open with concern.
Hutch sighed, turned back to gaze at the ceiling. "Yeah." He thought a moment, then, "I don't remember anything about it, except it was like reliving it."
Starsky made a noise of regret. "You were sleeping real good there."
"Yeah." And that's what Hutch wanted to do now: return to that blissful slumber.
The cleaning noises returned.
Hutch swallowed and realized the acid was still heavy at the back of his throat. He forced himself to his feet and wobbled out of the bedroom, across the living room, and into the bathroom. There, he rinsed out his mouth, then swallowed a little water. Then he gargled with mouthwash.
When he returned to bed, Starsky had finished. "You gonna be okay?" the other asked, pausing with his hand on the bedside lamp.
Hutch nodded. The room went dark, and as he lay on his back he felt his partner get into bed. His body was still weary, but now his mind felt awake. He sensed that Starsky was also lying on his back, fully awake. The room seemed deathly quiet for a long time.
The blond looked over at his bedmate and whispered, "Starsk?"
"Thanks... for pulling me out."
"Hey," the other returned in the same whisper, though it was a touch more gentle, "don't get the wrong idea. I did it for me, not for you."
Hutch suspected another statement was coming, something along the lines of Starsky not wanting the inconvenience of breaking in a new partner. Yet, the other's tone had been strangely serious.
"Don't know what I would do without you," Starsky explained, his voice softer.
Hutch didn't know why it surprised him, hearing such statements, for the feeling was definitely mutual. His heart expanded, then quickened slightly. Where Starsky was concerned, it had always been so natural to act on his feelings....
He reached over, laid his hand on an arm, pulled on it. "Come 'ere," he whispered.
He knew that Starsky had heard him; the other just wasn't sure what he was expected to do. Hutch tugged more forcefully. "Come over here."
Starsky scooted across the mattress and rolled over onto his side, so that he was leaning over Hutch.
The blond took the other in both hands now, and drew Starsky on top of himself. He wrapped his arms around the smaller, broader form and squeezed tight. "Don't know what I would do without you, either."
Starsky rested his head against Hutch's cotton-clad chest and worked his arms in beneath the blond. He squeezed, too.
Hutch felt weariness in his bones, but he didn't want to let go. He rubbed his hand up and down Starsky's back, needing to express what he felt.
But then his arms gave out, causing him to lose his hold.
"S'okay," came the whispered reassurance. "I got ya."
Indeed, the other did. Hutch relaxed his hands, letting them rest at Starsky's back. But he didn't lose the embrace, because Starsky's arms were still firmly around him, holding him so that he didn't have to strain to let his cheek rest against the other's chest. Starsky was cradling his head, petting him....
Hutch let his whole body relax. There was no one on this earth like Starsky. No other friend he'd ever had in his life who would do this for him, with whom he would be so utterly and completely comfortable as to even share the same bed, without having to make any nervous, defensive wisecracks....
One in a million. Or perhaps the only one in the world.
His head was gently released to the softness of the pillow. The embrace relaxed, then Starsky shifted to one side. But a hand stayed on Hutch's chest.
So hard to give up the touching, once it began. Hutch remembered so vividly, after the worst of the heroin withdrawal was over, how he and Starsky had been all the hungrier for contact with each other. Hutch knew that his own touches had been out of sheer need and fear… needing someone to cling to, for he had been so incredibly weak; and the fear that if he were allowed the opportunity, he might seek out the stuff again. It was months before he was confident the urge was thoroughly banished. Starsky's touches in those situations had seemed an act of protection. Certainly, he'd had a need for the reassurance, too -- that his partner was truly okay. But what Hutch remembered most in the weeks that followed the withdrawal was the touch-touch-touch, protect-protect-protect. Starsky had oozed with love. All for him.
"You wide awake now?"
Hutch turned slightly on his side to face the other. "Yeah," he admitted.
The hand on his chest moved up to his forehead and rested there. But it wasn't purely affectionate, causing Hutch to wonder, "What are you doing?"
"Feelin' for fever. Doc said to watch for it."
"I don't feel feverish."
The hand left. "You don't feel feverish to me, either. That's good." A pause, then, "Still shaky?"
Hutch wasn't sure how to answer. The small tremors had been banished with sleep. But, somewhere within, he felt a slight chill. It was so subtle that he couldn't pinpoint its location. "Just a little cold still."
A hand was in his hair, stroking. "Want to tell me about the dream?"
Hutch closed his eyes, shook his head. Then he shifted, inching a fraction closer to the warm body beside him. "Nothing to tell. I don't remember the details. I just know it was like I was under again."
Starsky's voice was hushed… and a trifle rough. "What were you thinkin'… when you were under?"
The blond tucked a hand beneath his cheek. His other arm reached until it encountered a t-shirt, then rested there. His fingers stroked in very small circles as he whispered, "I was surprised that it was all going to end that way." Then, softer, "I felt angry... but not panicked. I guess, by then, I was past the point of panic." Softer still, "I was wondering where you were… not to save me, but just wondering; I guess since we always seem to be together in everything that's important."
The hand that was in Hutch's hair dropped to rest against his cheek. "You mean, like, we were supposed to go out together?"
Hutch thought about that. "I'm not sure," he replied after a moment. "Maybe. But... but I feel like it wasn't so much dying together, as simply being together… in all things." He made a snort. "Really, Starsk, I want you to live if anything happens to me."
"No promises, babe."
Hutch didn't know what to say to that. Though instinct made him want to scold Starsky for even thinking he might give up on life if his partner were no longer around, Hutch couldn't bring himself to do it, for he knew that Starsky knew that he, too, was incapable of making such a promise.
Silence fell about them. Eventually their hands drifted away from each other. Hutch closed his eyes and tried to recapture the comfort of sleep. At one point he swallowed and was reminded of how raw his throat was. He tried to ignore it.
"Still can't sleep?"
The question made him realize that he had shifted restlessly, though he was still facing his partner. "I will eventually," he said in a casual tone, not wanting Starsky to worry about it.
The curly-haired man moved into a sitting position. "Here, maybe this'll help."
Hutch opened his eyes. "Hm?"
Starsky, sitting back against the headboard, put a pillow in his lap and patted it. "Come on, lay right here."
Hutch could only stare up at him, trying to meet his eyes in the darkness. Certainly, the idea was appealing; yet, something within felt it necessary to hesitate....
"Come on," Starsky beckoned in a firmer yet softer tone. "This way you'll know I'm right here if ya have any more dreams."
Hutch's eyes narrowed, not certain of the logic of Starsky's thinking. Nevertheless, he couldn't deny the request. He shifted, maneuvering across one of his partner's legs beneath the covers, until he was between them. He carefully laid his head against the pillow.
Fingers massaged his shoulders. "'Atta boy."
Hutch closed his eyes. Though the position felt good, he knew that it could be improved. Determined to sleep, he rolled over onto his stomach, stretching out his arms and legs, the latter tangling with his partner's.
His shoulders were released and the hands now stroked slowly up and down his cotton-clad back, fingers massaging.
"Mm," he grunted agreeably.
But he'd never been able to sleep with both arms stretched out. He pulled the right one closer, then wondered what to do with it. He wanted to increase the comfort of his situation by returning the contact, touching his partner. But the only thing his hands were close to was a thigh and its connecting hip.
What the hell, Hutch decided. He knew Starsky wouldn't mind. He placed his right hand on an upper buttock, letting his fingers grip slightly.
The feeling of warmth and security complete, he drifted into sleep.
Hutch was awakened by dawn's early light, but his raw throat reminded him that he had the day off, so he let himself drift back to sleep. He and Starsky had come apart some time during the night and, curled up in the bed clothes, Hutch was only partially aware of the noises of his partner going through his morning ablutions.
He had genuinely returned to sleep when the jostling of the bed awakened him. He rolled toward the dip in the mattress, opening his eyes.
Starsky was sitting on the bed, tying his shoelaces. Dressed and smelling of fresh cologne, he looked at Hutch. "How ya feelin'?"
The blond shrugged. "Fine." But he couldn't restrain a grimace. "Except the muscles around my stomach hurt like crazy and my throat's a little sore."
Starsky reached to lay a hand on his chest. "You're gonna follow Doc's orders, right? Stay home and get plenty of rest?"
Hutch took a deep breath. "Yeah," he replied sardonically. "I can catch up on all the soap operas. Lucky me."
Starsky took his hand away. More seriously, he said, "Remember what the doc said: watch for fever."
Starsky's smile was affectionate. He straightened. "You want some milk or orange juice or somethin' before I leave?"
It sounded good, but Hutch wasn't ready to be fully awakened yet. "Naw. I'm going back to sleep."
Starsky patted a covered leg. "'Kay. If I get a chance, I'll call ya later on."
Hutch nodded while burrowing back beneath the blankets. He never even heard Starsky leave the apartment.
It wasn't soap operas he watched; instead, it was an afternoon of game shows. He participated as well as he could, speaking answers out loud before the buzzer. The afternoon ended with him convinced that he could have been the champion of Match Game, Jeopardy, and $20,000 Pyramid.
During a commercial break, Hutch picked up the remains of his turkey sandwich and moved to the kitchen to toss it into the sink. He took the opportunity to fill a pitcher with water and went out onto his sun-bathed greenhouse.
He moved from plant to plant, greeting each one with a cheerful whistle or a sympathetic whisper for a bent or browning leaf. One particular plant, a large one in the corner, was getting scarce on soil. Hutch looked into another corner, saw that the bag of soil there seemed to be barely filled enough to have spared it from the garbage. He had bought a lot of soil all at once when finding it on sale at a discount store. Putting the pitcher down, he went to find which closet he may have stashed the supply in.
The third time was a charm, for he found it not in a closet, but in the cabinet below the sink. There were half a dozen sacks, and as he sat on the kitchen floor, Hutch pulled at a corner to bring one out. The movement disturbed something tucked between the bags. After moving the bags aside, a rectangle glass, framed in green plastic, rested at the edge of the shelf.
Hutch set the soil on the floor and held up the rectangular item, looking at it closely. It was an ant farm, one that Starsky had given him for Christmas a couple of years ago. The farm was now nothing more than shapeless sand encased in glass, for its inhabitants had died ages ago, the little black bodies having returned to the earth to nourish it for whatever future farmers there may be.
But there wouldn't be any, Hutch decided, getting to his feet with the farm in one hand and the soil in another. He bent to drop the farm into the nearest wastebasket.
When it came down to it, it had probably been one of Starsky's better gifts. Though its enjoyment came mostly from being a conversation piece, Hutch had to admit that he'd occasionally been fascinated by watching the tiny insects go about their business, even while alone in his apartment. Once they'd died, it had been tempting to repopulate it, but he had never bothered. And then he'd forgotten about it.
Hutch took the soil into the greenhouse. After opening the bag, he poured a healthy serving into the pot in the corner, then moved to inspect the other plants, adding a little here or there if it seemed warranted.
Christmas was coming up yet again, being less than two months away. Each year it came faster and Hutch was faced with the thankless task of having to choose a gift for those various people who expected it of him.
Of course, he'd weaseled out of it a couple of years ago. He'd stuck to his principles, hadn't gotten anybody a damn thing, except for planting a tree in Starsky's name.
Hutch cringed inwardly. No matter how many times he tried to tell himself he'd done the proper thing -- for reasons of principle -- he still felt a flush of shame when thinking of that particular year. Starsky had reacted predictably throughout the ordeal: first, being delighted when he thought Hutch really had gotten him something. Then playing the part of the fool so everyone could have a good laugh when he realized it wasn't really any gift at all. Then being enthusiastic while driving home, certain that Hutch had saved his "real" present for a more private unveiling. Then sulking heavily once discovering his partner had done no such thing. The next day, however, it had been as though Christmas had never happened, and Hutch knew he'd been forgiven.
Now, he sat back on his haunches after nourishing a tiny plant on a bottom shelf and sighed out loud.
Starsky was the gentlest, most loving, most giving person in the world. And, that Christmas, Hutch had been blatantly cruel.
He had tried to think it through whenever he felt that flush of shame; tried to understand the part of himself that made him want to do something so petty to one who meant so much. Hutch cringed again, thinking of just last night, Starsky working swiftly and diligently, cleaning up the mess Hutch had left, the mess that his partner had absolutely no obligation to do anything about.
And, worse yet -- Hutch hardened his jaw, for he always tried not to think about it -- was what Starsky had done for him after Forrest's men had been finished with him. In addition to keeping him clean of the never-ending vomiting, Starsky had held him close for all those awful hours, despite the fact that Hutch stank abominably. And he had soiled himself in all his helplessness, and then had sudden attacks of uncontrollable diarrhea for days following the worst of his ordeal. And Starsky had tolerated all of it without complaint.
No, not merely tolerated, Hutch corrected himself now. Starsky had babied him through it all, with tenderness and care, making him feel he was a human being even while his body committed those atrocities.
He supposed there was a phrase for it these days. Something that therapists enjoyed using.
Unconditional Love. Usually, it applied to the relationships between parents and children. It was supposed to also apply to spouses, but the divorce rate proved that it usually didn't. But it applied to his partner.
And maybe, Hutch considered while sitting on the floor of the greenhouse and resting his back against the wall, the sun bathing his face -- maybe that was the very thing that had caused those moments of unjustifiable meanness. Starsky would always forgive him. So he was free to commit any sins that suited his fancy. St. Peter may not let him through Heaven's gate, but Starsky would.
That allowed him to have his cake and eat it, too. He could act irresponsibly -- even spitefully -- and he never had to answer for it.
Maybe it was time he grew up. Maybe it was time he gave as good as he got. Oh, he knew Starsky was fully capable of taking care of himself -- and that he had been there in those moments when Starsky needed him -- but maybe, just maybe, it was about time he started showing some appreciation. Not when Starsky was hurt or injured. Not when Starsky was in particular need of him. But... just because.
It was difficult thinking of the holidays with the warm sun bathing his face. But Hutch decided some planning was in order.