The Best Thing
by Candy Apple

SHSVS, Episode 1

**********

Starsky paced his hospital room like a caged animal. Six weeks of his life had gone by while he was trapped in here, one day blending into another until he had to keep a calendar handy just to remember what day of the week it was. Hutch had finally brought in a calendar with hot rods and chesty women on it, which Starsky had used to track his progress toward his ultimate goal—liberation from what he'd come to view as his sterile white prison.

Included on the calendar were his physical therapy appointments—sessions he'd faced with nothing short of cold terror the first few times. He'd been sure his incision would open, that he'd undo everything the surgeons had managed to fix and, most of all, that he wouldn't be able to endure one more strain on his already exhausted body. The only thing that had assuaged those fears was Hutch's constant presence and quiet insistence, to the consternation of the hospital staff, that he always be present for Starsky's physical therapy.

Most of the time, he merely stood a sort of quiet guard over the proceedings and said nothing, wincing or cringing when Starsky was in pain, looking as if each motion of Starsky's battered body hurt him physically. On the few occasions when Starsky truly felt he couldn't take it anymore, he hadn't had to say anything. Hutch had intervened, argued with the therapist, and generally won. Hutch knew his partner's limits better than he did, and Starsky trusted Hutch not to let anything happen to him that would truly hurt him or jeopardize his recovery.

He sighed when he looked at the little slip of paper that held the schedule of appointments for continued therapy at the rehab center. Great. Six weeks' worth of water ballet with people in walkers, Starsky thought grimly. As much as he admired—and was inspired by—the strength, determination and positive attitudes of some of the people he'd met in the hospital who were fighting permanent disabilities, working on his own recovery in the presence of so much hopelessness hadn't done much for his morale.

He went back to the bed and tucked the calendar in the small suitcase Hutch had left with him the night before. Reluctant to entrust Starsky with something as strenuous as lifting the little piece of empty luggage onto the bed, he'd finally been convinced that Starsky's recovery had progressed to the point where he could handle folding pajamas and determining whether or not to take his plastic urinal home.

"Plastic pisser stays," Starsky said aloud, feeling a sort of triumph in setting the ugly bottle on the night stand. It reminded him too much of the first few weeks, when he was so dependent on either nurses or Hutch that he couldn't take a piss on his own.

Truth be told, he was feeling more than a little fatigued from his prolonged pacing, standing and moving about to pack up his things. Unnerved by his lack of stamina despite his enthusiasm for being sprung, Starsky consoled himself that anyone who had been lying on his ass for six weeks would be getting a bit winded from normal activity.

"Hey, buddy, you about ready to get out of this joint?" Hutch's voice startled him from behind.

"Just gotta zip up the suitcase and I'm—" Starsky stopped as he turned and took in the sight of his partner. He continued to gape, speechless.

"It was just a mustache, Starsk, not plastic surgery," Hutch joked, smiling more brightly than Starsky had seen him smile in months...maybe even years.

The mustache was gone, but it was more than that. The hair was different, too. It was still reasonably long, but more...styled... layered...neater—as if Hutch had suddenly begun taking pride in his blond good looks again. Overnight. Leaning there on the handles of the wheelchair, he was positively radiant in the mid-morning sun.

Starsky had long since stopped analyzing his physical attraction to Hutch—after all, there was nothing wrong with it. Hutch was beautiful, with that silky yellow hair and those big blue eyes and those perfect features. That smile that could light up the galaxy, like the one he was seeing now, had been absent far too long, but he remembered it well. Hutch was warm, gentle and caring, and Starsky had found comfort and solace in those strong arms more than once while he struggled to make his shattered body cooperate with the normal movement of life again. Who wouldn't be drawn to that? Starsky reasoned.

"Starsk? They change your medication or something? You look spaced out," Hutch teased, still smiling.

It's the clothes, too, Starsky decided, noticing now the navy blue shirt, long sleeves rolled up a bit, collar open, and the snug-fitting dark blue jeans.

"I was just surprised, you know, about the cookie duster," Starsky retorted, smiling a little.

"I decided it was time for a change." Hutch moved farther into the room with the wheelchair. "The nurse is on her way in with a couple forms for you to sign."

"Great. I'm gettin' stir crazy in this place." Starsky started to pull on the handle of the suitcase, but Hutch batted his hand away and picked it up.

"You don't have clearance for lifting yet, buddy," he said, setting the case on the floor next to the wheelchair. "You're not getting around the wheelchair ride, so you might as well get in."

"Okay," Starsky grumbled, though his attitude was mostly feigned. He was feeling tired, and trekking all the way down the hall and then all the way out to the car didn't really appeal to him all that much. He lowered himself into the chair, feeling the familiar but still uncomfortable pull of his incision.

"I moved some stuff into your place last night, got the refrigerator stocked, said good-bye to my plants," Hutch quipped, putting the footrests down on the wheelchair. His demeanor had gone from cheery to borderline jubilant.

Memorial Hospital's "Adopt an Invalid" Day. Step right up, folks, and you too can have your very own basket case to nursemaid back to health—and be as happy as this poor sap who hasn't figured out yet that there are no more nurses around to help him with his charge...

"Hey, buddy, you've been ‘X'ing off days as long as you've been awake waiting for this day," Hutch turned the wheelchair so it faced the chair near the bed and sat down. He'd made that chair his second home for the last month and a half. "You don't look too happy."

"Guess maybe I get more tired faster than I expected. I'm fine, buddy," Starsky said, forcing a little smile. He hated to burst Hutch's cheery bubble this way, but he wondered if his partner really knew what he was signing up for, and if he did, how long he'd truly be grateful to have an albatross around his neck demanding every minute of his time.

"As soon as you get home, you can take a nap in your own bed. No lights going on in your face at three in the morning." Hutch smiled, and then it faded a little. "It's got to be a little scary facing everything out there again."

God, Hutch, I love you...how you know me so well...better than I know myself...

"Yeah, I guess. I guess I thought I was doin' better than this. All'a this movin' around...wore me out."

"We're gonna start out nice and slow, taking some walks, building up your stamina. The doctor gave us some pointers and some ideas about how to start getting your energy back up again. Between that and your rehab, you'll get better every day." Hutch reached over and took hold of both of Starsky's hands and squeezed. Their shared gestures of affection had not only returned after too long an absence, but had become easier and less inhibited. It seemed like Hutch couldn't get enough of touching his living, breathing, recovering partner. Starsky, for his part, felt the touches had more healing power than a dumptruck full of assorted pills. He held onto those big hands gratefully. "I'm with you every step of the way, babe. You're on your way back. You're gonna be fine, Starsk. I know it seems like a long way down the road, but just think how impossible it felt when you got out of bed the first time that you'd be up and dressed and packing your own suitcase to go home."

"I know. It just...seems like packin' my suitcase just about did me in for the day. I'm tryin' to picture climbin' over a fence and runnin' down some sixteen-year-old street punk. I used to be able to do that, Hutch. No problem."

"I always was a better runner," Hutch joked, still holding onto Starsky's hands. Starsky laughed and, in his own mind, had to concede the point. Hutch ran regularly—or at least he used to—and he was never as winded from a long foot chase as Starsky was.

"What if...what if this is as well as I get?" he asked softly, not looking up. He kept his eyes on their joined hands. I'm so scared, Hutch. I don't wanna be an old man before my time. I can't even raise my arms all the way without wantin' to cry the way it pulls on my incision...

"You've got a lot of healing to do, buddy." Hutch released one hand and rested his palm against Starsky's cheek, the long fingers straying into Starsky's hair just a bit. "You remember when I broke my leg?" he asked. Starsky thought a moment. The way he'd asked, it hadn't immediately occurred to Starsky that he meant when the car landing on him at the bottom of the canyon broke his leg in three places.

"Yeah."

"You know how likely I thought it was that I'd ever walk normally again, let alone run? Jump over something? Play tennis? Shoot hoops?"

"You were really lucky how everything healed up like it did."

"I remember somebody who spent countless hours with me, doing physical therapy exercises, putting up with me when I was so damn frustrated and angry that I took it out on him...getting me into a fit of uncontrollable laughter the first time we tried to figure out a way for me to shower at home without killing myself or breaking the other leg," Hutch recalled, laughing, and Starsky had to chuckle a little himself.

Hutch's first night home, they had indeed tried to get him into the shower—and ended up exhausted, soaked, and in convulsions of laughter because no matter what they tried, it didn't work. Somehow, they'd found joy in the middle of pain, and their humor had made it all bearable. And not once had Starsky viewed the physical therapy, the personal difficulties with everything from simple bathroom use to bathing to errands, the least bit of a burden. He had Hutch, and Hutch was alive and going to be fine. That was all that had mattered to him. Why would he expect any lesser love from his partner now?

"Guess it's just the jitters," Starsky said with an uneasy smile.

"You're gonna be okay, Starsk. You already are—you just need to let your body heal up the rest of the way."

"The doc said I lost some lung capacity."

"He also said that with the right exercise program, you could build up your stamina again, and possibly return to active duty." Hutch patted Starsky's shoulder and stood as the nurse walked in. He took the clipboard from her and handed it to Starsky, who scrawled his signature in a couple of places while she gave them some final instructions.

"Now I know how the cons feel when they get turned loose with their new suit," Starsky quipped as Hutch pushed the wheelchair toward the elevator. "My clothes fit like shit."

"You're missing a few pounds, buddy. The way you eat, they'll be back in no time," Hutch said, pushing the chair into the elevator. Starsky was grateful when no one else got on and the doors closed.

"I guess."

"You'll feel like a new man when you've had a few good nights' sleep in your own bed," Hutch reassured, resting his hands on Starsky's shoulders and squeezing gently.

If only...but sorry to break it to you, Hutch—I'll still be the same stitched together mess then that I am now.

The mid-day sun was warm and bright, and the fresh air smelled wonderful—even if it was mixed with the usual smog of the city. Hutch had made it a point to load Starsky in a wheelchair and take him outside several times in the last couple of weeks, and Starsky had to admit it had raised his spirits. There was a park across the street from the hospital, and sometimes he'd sit on the patio where the patients could go and watch the kids play ball or the joggers making their rounds.

Just like an old man in a wheelchair watching all the young, healthy people out living their lives.

"Figured you deserved to ride in something you liked for your trip home," Hutch said, wheeling Starsky down the sidewalk from the main door of the hospital toward the Torino, which was waiting near the curb.

"Merle do a good job?"

"Good as new, buddy." Hutch approached the passenger side.

"Take me around the other side."

"Don't even think about driving."

"I'm not. I wanna see what kinda job he did on the body."

"Trust me, buddy—"

"Hutch, I wanna see the other side. I can get up and go look if you aren't gonna wheel me over there."

"Okay, easy, babe." Hutch rested a hand on his shoulder. "See for yourself." Hutch wheeled the chair around the back of the car to the driver's side and Starsky, at perfect eye-level to inspect it, did just that, running his hand carefully along the previously damaged area. "How'd you know?" Hutch frowned, obviously puzzled how Starsky could know where the bullets had lodged since he'd never seen the car in its damaged state.

"I know one went through the window, and there were two in the side." Starsky squinted at the car. "I figure, the two that hit me here," he pointed to a spot on his stomach, "and here," then to another spot a bit higher, "must'a gone in right about there. The one that nailed my lung had to be the one that shattered the window."

"How did you know the window was broken?"

"Shattering glass," Starsky said, more to himself than Hutch, his fingertips resting lightly against the bottom of the restored window on the driver's side. "I...I remember shattering glass." He swallowed. "In dreams sometimes. It's not very clear. Good to know I was right, though. Now I know I'm not nuts."

"Not about that, anyway," Hutch quipped, trying to lighten the mood a little. "Ready to go now?"

"Yeah, sure." Starsky waited patiently to be wheeled back to the passenger side, where he got out of the wheelchair and carefully slid into the passenger seat. The thought of how he usually jumped into the car haunted him a bit as he eased into position carefully.

"I'll take the chair back in. Be back in a flash, buddy." Hutch headed up the sidewalk again, wheeling the empty chair and whistling some inane tune. Starsky felt guilty for not sharing that joy. All he could think to do now was scan the area, suspiciously eyeing the other parked cars. He could remember movement and the sound of metal crunching...a squad car moving out from among the others...

The driver's door opened and he jumped a bit in the seat, sending his incision into a fit of throbbing.

"Sorry, buddy. Didn't mean to startle you." Hutch got in behind the wheel and started the engine. "You okay?"

"Yeah. Guess I just need that nap."

**********

Sleeping in his own bed had been a goal Starsky had held dear for a long time. Now, here he was, lying in his own bed, noticing lumps in the mattress he hadn't noticed before, feeling the lack of support in some places and the utter flatness of the mattress. There was no little button to press to raise his head or his feet, and he finally just lay there, hurting, wondering if this was the joy coming home was supposed to be.

"You okay, buddy?" Hutch was in the doorway now. Even with the curtains drawn in the bedroom, Starsky could see the concern on his face.

"Mattress is lumpier and squishier than I remember," he said, shifting uncomfortably. "I'll be okay."

"What if you turned on your side and we stuffed some pillows behind you?"

"Maybe."

That was sufficient to launch Hutch into a flurry of activity, gathering anything that resembled a pillow and building a nice, soft support for his partner's war-torn body. Starsky wondered how long Hutch could keep up this pace, but kept that concern to himself. Hutch would only cheerfully dismiss it as no big deal—just like he'd dismissed emptying bedpans and learning how to change surgical dressings as mere details of Starsky's recovery. Sure, he'd mopped up after Hutch after the whole mess with Forest, but that was a couple days. Hutch had been doing dirty work for weeks now.

"Try that," Hutch said gently, waiting while Starsky shifted and leaned back into the support. "Better?"

"Yeah, feels great," Starsky responded honestly, sighing with relief.

"Good." Hutch smiled warmly, reaching down to stroke Starsky's hair lightly. "Get some sleep, babe. The rest'll do you good." Hutch started to move away from the bed. "You want the radio on low?"

"Might help me sleep."

"That about right?" Hutch adjusted the volume, and Starsky nodded. "Holler if you need me. I'm going to read a little while, then maybe make us something good for dinner."

"Okay," Starsky said through a yawn. "Hutch?"

"Yeah, buddy?" Hutch stopped in the doorway, just before closing it around to the frame.

"Thanks."

"It's good to see you out of the hospital, Starsk," Hutch said, pausing a moment. "You gave me a hell of a scare there."

"Over a few bullet holes? Me? Nah...I'm indestructible, remember? Neither poison nor bullets nor one-armed stranglers can stop me on my appointed rounds," Starsky joked, and Hutch laughed. That was something Starsky wanted to hear more of in the future—Hutch laughing.

"And the mail carriers think they have it rough with the elements," Hutch retorted, shaking his head and pulling the door around to the frame.

If this stitched up bag'a bones can make him this happy, then I guess it's all worth somethin', Starsky thought, letting his eyes drift shut. They popped open when he thought of how he'd feel if he'd seen Hutch lying in a pool of blood, riddled with multiple gunshot wounds, presumed to be beyond saving...and how utterly thankful he'd be if Hutch pulled through—even if he were an invalid...just having him alive would be everything.

Realizing how elated Hutch was just to have him alive and out of the hospital, Starsky resolved to work on his somewhat flat, dismal attitude. Hutch deserved better. He deserved to have his partner back, not some self-pitying, sniveling sissy who complained all the time.

Letting the sound of the soft music relax him, he dozed off to sleep.

**********

Hutch kept himself occupied for almost two hours with a novel he'd found on Starsky's book shelf. His partner's eclectic taste in reading material never ceased to amaze him, and now, he sat reading a mystery that he had to admit was fairly engrossing and reasonably well- written. He'd been ready to tease Starsky about amassing a collection of seedy mysteries, but this particular novel somewhat foiled that plan.

As soon as Starsky was feeling better, they'd have to get outdoors a little more, take some walks...Hutch knew he needed the exercise, and Starsky would need to start building his stamina again.

Thinking of Starsky up and walking, building up his strength, was something Hutch had been afraid to indulge in until the last couple of weeks. His partner rallied from his coma, but he was battling injuries that the medical personnel clearly believed should have been fatal. His body rebelled with infections that kept Starsky's temperature elevated, and antibiotics further ravaged his weakened system with miserable side effects that conspired with the lack of solid food to drain most of the healthy weight off Starsky's frame.

After the initial elation of that moment when Starsky's eyes opened and he surfaced from the coma, there had been many dark days where Hutch could do little more than sit quietly by the bed. Sometimes, when it was safe to move Starsky a bit, he'd slide into the hospital bed and just stay close, listening to a few strained admissions of pain, soothing some of Starsky's fears that this was as good as it would ever get. Those moments of closeness, sometimes in the darkest hours of the night, seemed to bolster Starsky's strength more than the medications and, at a point, he began to recover.

And again, his doctor had to wander out of the room muttering, "I'll be damned."

A week ago, they'd celebrated Starsky's rapidly progressing recovery with a party in his hospital room, feasting on various treats as Starsky enjoyed some of his first nausea-free gorging. The antibiotics, torture devices that they seemed at the time, cleared up the infection in his system, and once he was free of them, Starsky had started showing signs of a healthy appetite again, though he could eat much less than before he was shot. Hutch imagined that capacity would expand with time.

Starsky was thin almost to the point of being gaunt, and his complexion held the pallor of prolonged confinement. Six weeks away from the gym had begun to tell on his toning, though Hutch suspected once he recovered fully, it wouldn't take him long to work his way back to his former self—though observing Starsky's physical therapy had been, for Hutch, akin to watching some sort of legalized torture. It was hard to reconcile in his mind a vision of the man who was driven nearly to tears with simple stretching exercises being able to grab a barbell and use it to work up a sweat, to do chin ups, or to run a police obstacle course. He tried to push that thought aside, reminding himself that Starsky had the determination of ten men when he made his mind up to something.

Hutch could honestly say, in retrospect, that even in Starsky's worst moments, he had a sort of beauty about him—maybe it was his strength, maybe it was the light that never quite went out in those intense, vibrant blue eyes no matter how weak he was or how much pain he suffered. Maybe it was because he kept beating the odds with an unparalleled determination—maybe it was because he kept his promise.

Late one night, with his fever spiking from the infection and the antibiotics not taking a hold the way they should, Starsky had watched Hutch with undivided attention as he'd leaned in close, holding Starsky's hand tightly in his own. He'd made Starsky promise not to give in, not to leave him. Hutch had proceeded to cry his eyes out on his frail partner's shoulder, and while he cursed his own weakness at the time, it had been that weakness that had forced Starsky to find his own strength. Even that night, one shaky hand had come up to stroke Hutch's hair, and a hoarse voice had assured him everything would be okay. Over and over, Starsky had muttered, "I won't leave you, babe."

After one more agonizing night, Starsky's fever broke and he began to recover. While Hutch was sure the doctors would have some sort of scientific summary of how and why it happened, he couldn't help feeling that Starsky beat the odds, yet again, simply because he loved Hutch too much to let him down and leave him alone.

Smiling at that thought, Hutch set his book aside and decided to look in on his partner, primarily for the pure joy of seeing him sleeping peacefully in his own bed without a network of tubes sustaining his life. He moved stealthily to the door and pushed it open a bit. Starsky looked up at him immediately, obviously wide awake.

"Everything okay, buddy?" Hutch asked, concerned.

"Just thinkin'."

"Doc said you shouldn't strain yourself that way," Hutch quipped, and Starsky snorted something that sounded like a laugh. "About anything special?"

"No. Just can't sleep."

"Want me to read to you for a while?" Hutch had read to Starsky more than once when he was too ill to do anything to entertain himself.

"Nah, I'm okay."

"You want to take your nap out on the couch?"

"You'll have to crawl around bein' quiet then."

"I'm just reading, Starsk. That's not noisy. Come on." Hutch gave his partner a hand standing up, though Starsky could make it on his own now. Grabbing armloads of pillows and blankets, Hutch led the way to the living room. After making up the couch, he stood back and waited for Starsky to settle on it, then covered him.

"Readin' anything good?" he asked as Hutch settled back into his chair.

"Actually, yes—this book isn't half bad." He held up the mystery, and Starsky nodded.

"Stayed up ‘til three in the mornin' one night finishing that one."

"Want me to read to you?"

"Nah, enjoy it, Blondie. I know who did it."

"You do, huh?"

"Mm-hm." Starsky closed his eyes and yawned. "'Course, I knew that pretty early on. Just kept readin' to find out if I was right."

"So who did you think did it?"

"Nice try," Starsky sighed, almost asleep.

Hutch was tempted to ask him if the afternoon sun that was streaming in the windows now was bothering him, but Starsky was starting to breathe more evenly, and looked as happy as an old cat stretched out in the warmth. Something tugged at his heart a bit when he watched how quickly Starsky's entire body seemed to relax and how easily he slid off into the much-needed sleep as long as his partner was with him.

"Sweet dreams, babe," Hutch said softly, unable to repress a smile at just watching Starsky sleep, hearing the steady in and out of healthy breathing.

Still not convinced that Starsky had seen through the author's carefully constructed plot so easily, Hutch went back to his book.

**********

"Huh?!" Starsky jerked up on one elbow on the couch, startling Hutch, who was on the last few pages of the book, totally engrossed.

"Starsk? You okay?" Hutch set the book aside, marking his spot. "What's wrong?"

"I heard something..." Starsky winced a little as he let himself drop back down onto the pillows. "Damn. Must've been a dream."

"The glass shattering?" Hutch ventured. It wasn't the first time Starsky had mentioned the dream. Maybe it was his own form of trauma-induced amnesia, but it wasn't until Starsky made the connection between the broken Torino window and the sound of shattering glass that Hutch associated the two. Truthfully, Hutch remembered very little about the most horrific few moments of his life—and Starsky's spotty memories of it sent chills down his spine.

"Yeah, and that sound...when the cars scraped together...I guess that's what it is, anyway. I remember that much—seein' that squad car tryin' to pull out and not doin' such a great job of it." Starsky sighed. As if just noticing the lamp that was lit behind Hutch's chair, he asked, "How long was I out?"

"A couple hours. I was going to wake you in a little bit for dinner."

"What're we havin'?"

"Sniff," Hutch said. He watched as Starsky obeyed.

"Chicken?"

"Got it in one. I put it in the oven a few minutes after you went to sleep. Should be ready pretty soon. We've also got those garlic mashed potatoes you like—the ones Minnie makes. She sent a batch over yesterday when she heard you were getting sprung."

"That was nice. Nice to know anybody over there still thinks about me."

"Of course they still think about you, Starsk."

"Couldn't prove it by the ‘get well' cards. I think it's been two weeks since I heard from anybody at work."

"I think once they knew you were going to be okay, they probably didn't worry as much about you. Figured they'd been seeing you turn up in the squad room one of these days."

"Yeah, sure," Starsky grumbled. "Probably get Smitty's old job," he added, referring to the elderly man who shined Dobey's shoes.

"Starsk, come on. You've had a hell of a hard time in the hospital. Your body needs time to heal."

"I know. I'm lucky to be alive," he recited tiredly, as if he'd heard that line enough to last him a lifetime.

"Yes, you are." Hutch's momentary annoyance softened, and he moved to sit on the coffee table, resting his hand on Starsky's shoulder. "I'm real lucky you're alive, too, buddy."

"Sure...how else would you have had the chance to change bandages, empty bedpans and haul an invalid around?"

"While you were in the hospital, there were still nurses around to do all that. So if I was doing it some of the time instead, doesn't that tell you something? Like, maybe I wanted to do it?"

"I'm sorry. I guess I'm just gettin' stir crazy."

"Understandable, buddy. We'll take a ride somewhere tomorrow. Get out in the fresh air, see some different scenery...sound good?"

"Great," Starsky smiled, and it was almost convincing.

"It'll get better than this, Starsk. I know it."

"I know. Dinner's smelling like it's gettin' near done. Let's eat, huh?"

"Okay," Hutch agreed, smiling, not entirely sure he'd managed to cheer Starsky up at all.

**********

Hutch punched his pillow and writhed about one more time, expecting that maybe his legs would have shortened since the last time he turned over and found his ankles on the far arm of the couch. His back protested the yielding cushions and their lack of support. He finally let an arm flop outward in protest of the narrow conditions, and jerked with a start when he managed to send a beer bottle clattering to the floor—and rolling, loudly. He scrambled to pick it up, and looked up to see his partner standing in the bedroom doorway, watching him with great amusement.

"You don't need to go to the gym—you already got your workout," he quipped, chortling.

"Very funny," Hutch grumbled, picking up the bottle and carrying it to the trash.

"Why don't you just sleep on the empty side'a the bed? What I've got's not catching," Starsky added, still grinning.

"I didn't want to risk bumping you or jostling you around too much."

"I'm not made outta china, Hutch. You're not going to re-open my incision by bumping into me in the middle of the night."

"I just don't think it's a good idea." Hutch disposed of the bottle and then turned to see that Starsky had moved closer.

"Why not?"

The question hung there in the silence a moment. Hutch fumbled for a coherent response, and realized there wasn't one that would make sense. One that would satisfy that inquisitive look that bordered on hurt—as if the closeness they'd always shared somehow had changed, and Hutch didn't want to share something as personal as sleeping space. It generally wasn't an issue—they had their own places, they had double rooms in hotels, and, when there was only one bed, someone took the couch. They just didn't talk about it. Hutch never slept well on the couch, but fortunately, Starsky was a heavy sleeper and Hutch usually didn't knock things over—so Starsky had never known that. Now he did. Hutch gulped.

"Uh...I get up early."

"I'm a heavy sleeper—unless you trip over somethin' on your way out, I won't know the difference."

"I was thinking about going for a run in the morning, and I might need the alarm—"

"You didn't have one out here tonight by the couch."

"The sunlight wakes me up if the drapes aren't closed."

"So leave the drapes open in the bedroom then. I can go back to sleep after you close ‘em up in the morning."

"You need your rest," Hutch tried, the words sounding lame even to his own ears. Starsky looked confused, then hurt, then resigned.

"Yeah, I guess so. Well, better get back to it then." He turned to go into the bedroom and paused. "Maybe we can get a sofa bed or roll-away or somethin' for you."

"Yeah, maybe," Hutch agreed, and Starsky looked back at him for a long moment.

"'Night, Hutch."

"Sleep well, buddy," Hutch said, trying to force cheerfulness into his voice.

Starsky went into the bedroom and closed the door around to the frame. Listening intently, Hutch could hear the creak of bedsprings and the rustle of bedclothes as Starsky worked at getting re-situated for sleep. He sat on the rumpled, makeshift bed on the couch and ran both hands back through his hair, lacing his fingers at the base of his skull and leaving them there as he rested against the back of the couch.

Throughout his life, Hutch felt he'd been reasonably blessed when it came to opportunities for dating—or bedding—pretty women. His blond good looks had made attracting the opposite sex almost a given rather than something he'd worked at very hard. With all that action feeding teenage hormones, and later, keeping his college nights and weekends happy, there had seemed precious little reason to open the can of worms that he knew lurked beneath the surface of his acknowledged sexuality.

There seemed little reason to succumb to any feelings of physical attraction toward other men. He'd had them—in the early days, he'd had a crush on Jack Mitchell that he sublimated into close friendship—and truthfully, there was no more compelling romantic emotion flaring up in his soul that a good roll in the hay with a willing lady hadn't fixed. He'd met a few other men over the course of a lifetime who had turned his head a little, or given him a few stirrings of desire.

The first day he met David Starsky, he'd had no feelings of anything. He'd always found himself drawn more to men like himself—tall, light-haired, a bit on the aloof order. Average-sized guys with dark curly hair and New York accents certainly weren't sufficient to distract him from whatever lady happened to be his current love interest.

Starsky was a complex puzzle, though, and the more time he spent putting the pieces together, the more intrigued he became with the project. Starsky didn't have a degree from a fancy university, but he could keep up with Hutch's thought processes any day of the week. There were times when Starsky grasped a concept in their Academy classes faster than Hutch did. He'd pick up and devour any cheesy, fifth-rate book of outlandish trivia he could find, but he also could lose himself in a complex piece of classic fiction.

Starsky was nothing if he wasn't interesting and colorful, and before he knew what was happening, the somewhat reserved, tall, blond, aloof Kenneth Hutchinson had found himself seeking Starsky out more and more. Starsky, for his part, was always easily found, and looking back, it seemed like he gravitated toward Hutch in a much more subtle way. He was just always...there.

Over the course of their friendship, Hutch would find they were a study in contrasts in dozens of ways. Starsky had grown up without his father and without a lot of money. He'd had a warm, loving family background and still called his mother without fail, every single Friday. A widow raising two boys alone, she'd finally sent her elder son out to California to live with relatives, hoping to extricate him from some of the less savory company he'd started to keep in New York. Hutch wondered how a child could cope with losing his father, then being uprooted and separated from his mother and brother, all during one of the most turbulent points of his life—his adolescent years.

Starsky was a survivor. For everything that had been thrown at him, and all he'd lived through up to the point when Hutch first met him, Starsky was as energetic and optimistic—probably more so—than Hutch himself. Hutch, who had never known what it was like not to have enough money—until he'd married Vanessa, who could go through his paycheck faster than he could endorse the back of it. Hutch, who had never faced a horrible family tragedy. Of course, Hutch had never been all that close to his family anyway. They were long on money and short on emotion. In their own ways, he supposed both Starsky and he had grown up with some deficiencies.

Hutch was drawn to Starsky for all the right reasons, and their bond formed during their final months in the Academy, survived separate rookie assignments, and deepened into a lifelong friendship by the time they managed to become partners. Life was good; they had the jobs they always wanted—jobs with lots of undercover work and dangerous cases—and they had each other, their mutual idea of the perfect partners.

Starsky's energy was contagious, and his enthusiasm was as easy to deny as a runaway freight train. Hutch had been dragged on more leisure-time pursuits of Starsky's choice in the early days because Starsky merely overwhelmed him with the sound and fury of his excitement for a particular movie, concert or activity. As time went on, Hutch had started insisting on choosing some of their activities himself and found that, with an expected degree of grumbling, Starsky would try most anything once—but he would never refuse spending time with Hutch. The confirmed city boy would even go camping before he'd spend a long weekend without his partner.

His feelings for Starsky snuck up on him, tiptoed into his subconscious and lurked there for a good long time before making themselves known. It wasn't the same basic physical attraction Hutch had felt before, but something deeper. It was that frightening kind of love that blends the one great love of your life with your passion and desire. The kind that would cost you everything to turn loose. The kind that would consume everything else in your life, that would make you want to pledge your life, heart, soul and future to another person.

The way he had felt for Jack Mitchell had only been a puppy love imitation of this—it could have never possessed this depth, this magnitude. But as he did with Jack Mitchell, Hutch managed to sublimate even this all-consuming love into an almost passionate and obsessive friendship. He spent as much time as he could with Starsky, and even then, he was jealous of the time his partner spent with others. Every time Starsky fell in love and was let down—usually hard—Hutch had picked up the pieces and been there for him. And wished with all his heart he could find the courage to make that step across the line. To show Starsky there was a love out there that would give back to him all the devotion and passion and tenderness that Starsky offered willingly to the lucky person who had his heart.

Jack Mitchell was straight as an arrow, and Hutch had no doubt that he'd have been ridiculed mercilessly for any foray into something more than friendship. Jack simply wouldn't have taken it seriously, wouldn't have believed his friend could feel that way. That his friend, Ken, was a faggot.

Starsky certainly showed no signs of being anything but straight, though he sometimes flirted with Hutch shamelessly. Long since having given up on anything more than friendship with his partner, Hutch chalked all that up to Starsky's total and utter comfort with him. Homosexuality made Starsky uneasy in a way it made many straight men uneasy, but Hutch had never feared ridicule or violent retaliation from Starsky. He only feared the thing that mattered most to him—their relationship. He feared making Starsky uncomfortable or uneasy.

Truth be told, there were plenty of beautiful women around to take care of the sexual side of his life. Being a cop and indulging a libido that didn't discriminate between the sexes was just too dangerous. Women were safer, and there was no other man that stirred in him the depth of feeling Starsky did.

Which is what brought him back to where he was now, sitting on the couch, protecting his safe, carefully constructed situation with the one person he loved more than anything or anyone, more than his own life. And hurting that very person to do it. Starsky had no way to know why Hutch didn't want to sleep in the same bed with him, and had no way to understand what it was about him that his partner found so repulsive that he wouldn't endure sharing a large, comfortable bed with him in preference to a too-short, too saggy couch.

I'll clean up after him in all the most horribly personal and unpleasant ways, hold him when he's hurting, move in with him while he regains enough strength to be on his own—but I won't share the same mattress with him—I'd rather stay awake all night instead. No wonder he's confused.

Stretching out on the couch and shifting his long legs until he was in a position that was bearable, Hutch worked at courting sleep. When almost an hour had passed without so much as nodding off, he sat up again. Starsky was wearing pajamas, he was in boxers and a t-shirt. Starsky's body was in no condition to do more than sleep and carefully rebuild its stamina, and Hutch himself had to admit he was exhausted. How erotic could it be, even to a long-denied desire, to just catch some real sleep in a real bed?

Cursing himself for his earlier stupidity, Hutch made his way to the bedroom door. He resolved that if Starsky were sleeping peacefully, he'd merely accept his own sleepless state and go back to the couch. When he pushed open the door, the dark head on the pillow raised immediately, and he could feel those intense eyes riveted on him.

"I was thinking maybe I'd take you up on your offer, if it still stands. I can't seem to doze off out there." Hutch waited uneasily while the answering silence stretched for a prolonged moment.

"Okay," came the mild reply, and Starsky's head was back down on its pillow where it belonged. He was curled on his side, facing away from the empty side of the bed. A couple pillows were stuffed behind his back for support. "I'm hoggin' the pillows, so bring yours from the couch," Starsky added.

"Right," Hutch agreed, fetching the pillows and returning, groping his way to the bed in the darkened room. Once he'd settled in, facing Starsky's back, he had to admit that this beat the couch by miles.

"Hutch?"

"Yeah, buddy?"

"Why didn't you wanna come in here before?" The question was little more than a whisper, but it was obvious Starsky had been stewing about it since his initial offer had been rejected.

"I told you—I didn't want to disturb you."

"And I told you you weren't gonna bother me." There was a long pause. "Do I make noise in my sleep or somethin'? Snore or talk or somethin' else?"

"No more than anybody else," Hutch responded.

"Do I smell funny?"

"Where did that come from?" Hutch had to chuckle despite the sincerity of Starsky's tone.

"Sometimes there's a smell around sick people, y'know...when they're real sick, sometimes they smell...funny."

"You're not sick in a way that would make you smell funny, Starsk. You're not sick at all."

"Then why?"

"Starsky, for God's sake, can't you just let it go so we can get some sleep?"

The sharp retort was met with silence.

"I'm sorry, buddy. I'm just tired," Hutch finally said, hoping to fill the void. "I'm not thinking straight. There was no good reason. Just being contrary, I guess."

"That's nothin' new." Starsky's voice held the slight trace of a smile, and Hutch could feel his insides unwind and relax. Finally, he'd hit on an explanation Starsky seemed to buy. "Comfy?"

"Yeah. You were right, Starsk. This beats the couch by miles."

"Good. Get some sleep, Blintz. You don't get enough with waitin' on me all the time."

"You feeling okay?"

"Same as always—only hurts when I breathe or move," Starsky said, a little humor in his voice. "I'm fine. Go to sleep."

"'Night, buddy."

"'Night."

Hutch listened until Starsky's breathing evened out, then finally let himself relax. Nothing catastrophic had happened, he hadn't been overpowered by his latent desires, and he felt damn comfortable and very much at peace tucked into the large bed with his living, healthy partner sleeping soundly nearby. The only impulse he had to squelch was his urge to move forward and plant a goodnight kiss on Starsky's cheek.

**********

"Now remember, if you need to come home early, just call. I'm going home from here and—"

"Okay, Mommy, I'll be fine," Starsky teased, opening the passenger door of Hutch's car, which was pulled up in front of the rehab center.

"You're sure you don't want me to wait?" Hutch asked.

"Why don't you just run along inside and do the session for me and I'll wait in the car?" Starsky teased.

"Guess I'm a little overprotective, huh?" Hutch laughed softly. "Sorry, buddy. I'm just used to being on top of things."

"You still are. But there're a few things I need to start doin' for myself. One of ‘em's goin' in there and facing this rehab thing like an adult instead of hiding behind my partner when the therapist shows up."

"Okay. Have a good session. Call if you need anything. I'll be at the apartment until I come and pick you up," Hutch shot out quickly, despite any impending "mommy" remarks it might evoke.

"Thanks, pal. I'll see ya later." Starsky got out of the car and shut the door, watching Hutch drive away. He realized then that he hadn't been truly alone anywhere in a very long time. Unable to believe he was actually feeling a little tug of separation anxiety at seeing Hutch's old blue LTD pull out into traffic, he laughed at himself and, shaking his head, walked into the rehab center.

**********

Hutch drummed his fingers on the steering wheel and checked his watch again. Starsky was ten minutes late coming out of the building. He found it hard to believe they'd do anything so strenuous with him that he'd work up a sweat and have to shower, and it seemed equally unlikely that the session itself would run overtime.

He turned the key in the ignition back a notch so he could listen to the radio. Don't hover, Hutchinson, he chided himself. Maybe he's just visiting with somebody. He needs to talk to somebody besides you once in a while. Another ten minutes passed before, finally, Starsky emerged from the front entrance, talking to a man who looked like he was probably in his early to mid-twenties. Wondering what affliction Starsky's companion was fighting, Hutch watched the two men talking, and noticed Starsky's somewhat dire expression and the slouch of his shoulders. He looked worn out, but that was to be expected.

The two men exchanged what must have been final words, and the other man turned and walked toward a car parked farther up the walk in which a driver was also waiting. His right arm was missing.

"How'd it go?" Hutch asked as Starsky slid into the passenger seat, moving a bit more slowly than he had when he got out of the car.

"Okay," Starsky said, forcing a little smile. "Lot of movin' around to get used to," he added.

"Feeling all right?"

"Just real tired. Kinda achy."

"When we get home, why don't you take a shower and I'll give you a back rub. Sound good?" Hutch pulled away from the curb. He couldn't change the physical therapy process or the need for Starsky to suffer some pain along the road to getting his mobility and strength back, but he could soothe a few of the little aches along the way.

"Yeah, thanks." Starsky smiled genuinely at that.

"Who's your friend?"

"Hm? Oh...Carl? He's in my rehab group. He lost his arm from a gunshot wound." Starsky shook his head. "He was just a rookie—he'd only been out on the streets a few months."

"Man, that's rough," Hutch said, trying to picture having one's chosen career taken away so swiftly, so early. He supposed it was a different kind of body blow than the one he and Starsky both feared—Starsky losing his career after quite a few years on the streets. In one situation, you never really get to experience it fully before it's taken away, and in the other, you have it taken away at the height of your competency and success. Either way, it had to hurt like hell.

"You want to go to Huggy's, get a bite to eat? We haven't stopped in to see him in a while."

"Okay," Starsky agreed blandly.

"We don't have to if you don't feel up to it, buddy," Hutch said.

"He's going to want to know when I'm goin' back to work. I don't know how to even answer that."

"He's a friend, Starsk. Like the rest of your friends and family, he's glad you're alive. You think it matters to Huggy whether you're on active duty or not?"

"I know it doesn't."

"Then what is it, Starsk?" Hutch asked gently, feeling like there was something deeper that Starsky wasn't saying.

"I...I just...I don't look like I used to."

"What do you mean?" Hutch frowned.

"Hutch, my clothes are hanging on me. I know I look like a picked chicken and I don't move like I used to—getting out of the restaurant booth is an effort if I slide too far in." Starsky stared out the passenger window. "Stupid, huh?"

"You look a little thinner and you move a little slower getting out of the booth. Nobody's going to notice that, babe," Hutch said, resting his hand on Starsky's shoulder, hoping their shared endearment would reassure him a little. "But your feelings aren't stupid, and we don't have to go to Huggy's. Maybe we can have Huggy over for dinner some night, when he can leave the bar for a while."

"Okay. You mind getting take-outs?"

"No, that's fine. How about fried chicken?"

"Sounds good."

**********

Starsky felt dangerously close to sleep as Hutch's hands gently kneaded his tense shoulders. Here he was, stretched out on his bed, accepting the kind of rubdown a star athlete deserved, and he'd done essentially nothing. Less than nothing. He hadn't even done well at what little he'd done. A man with one arm could lift more than he could without even breaking a sweat. It was obvious to Starsky that he wasn't even as far along on his recovery as the therapist thought he should be.

Carl had a spirit that made him feel ashamed of his own self-pity. At twenty-three years of age, he was washed up as a cop. Permanently and without question, he would never see street duty again. Despite that, he'd cheered Starsky on and encouraged him, and when their session was over, he'd had some words of encouragement after what was, in Starsky's opinion, a pathetic performance even for a guy in rehab.

Truth be told, the fact he was thinner than before and a little slower didn't have all that much to do with why he hadn't wanted to go to The Pits. It was true that both things made him somewhat self-conscious, along with the fact that everyone seemed to consider it a miracle he was alive and felt compelled to dwell on how close to death he'd been. What really gnawed at him, though, was to walk into Huggy's and feel things so much like they used to be—and yet so different. To go into a place where he'd last gone whole and healthy, to remember what it was like to be on the streets with Hutch and feeling almost invincible...right now, facing his failure at his therapy session, it was too much to endure.

"Why don't you catch a nap before dinner, buddy?" Hutch suggested quietly, the massage obviously at an end.

"Yeah, sounds good," Starsky agreed, letting the lethargy the massage promoted linger as he shifted onto his side. Hutch covered him with a blanket.

"Sleep tight, buddy. I'll wake you when it's time to eat." As Hutch moved away from the bed, Starsky made a successful grab for his hand and squeezed.

"Thanks."

"Anytime," Hutch responded, squeezing back briefly before releasing Starsky's hand and leaving the room.

How am I gonna tell him that his cop partner is all washed up? Starsky asked himself, knowing that eventually Hutch would have to know how pointless all this therapy was.

**********

Starsky sat on the bench of the picnic table on his patio and aimed the camera at a nest full of baby birds in a nearby tree. After getting at least three shots using the new zoom lens Hutch had gotten him just after he was released from the hospital, he turned his attention to other parts of the greenery around him. His partner had definitely found for him something that not only occupied his downtime effectively, but also encouraged him to get out and move. It was worth it to make the somewhat daunting sojourn to the park just to spend the afternoon there snapping photos.

Bored with the flora and fauna, he checked the camera. There were six photos left on this roll of film, and then he could get it developed. He turned toward the exterior of the house that held his apartment, thinking maybe he'd get up and move back a bit and get some shots of it—for no good reason, but it was yet another subject he hadn't completely mastered, so it was as good as any.

Then he noticed movement inside, and paused before moving from the bench. Hutch was inside, visible through the patio doors, doing a little housework. Starsky snorted a laugh. His partner seemed equally competent wielding a .357 Magnum or an iron. For the fun of it, he used the new lens to focus on his partner, zooming in until he was seeing him as if they were only a few feet apart.

Hutch was dressed in a pair of jeans and a pale blue t-shirt that brought out the color of his eyes. Briefly wondering where that stray thought came from, Starsky aimed, focused carefully, and took two shots of his partner ironing a pair of slacks.

Must be he wants to be able to slice tomatoes with that crease, Starsky snickered to himself, raising the camera again, taking two shots of his partner as he held the garment up and inspected his handiwork. Obviously unhappy, he returned it to the ironing board and went after it with the sort of determination Starsky had seen Hutch use in questioning murder suspects. The pants didn't stand a chance. Smiling, he captured that intensity—or at least its visual representation—on the final two photos left on his roll of film.

The last two weeks had contained some of the most pleasant times of his life, oddly enough. Once Hutch had gotten over whatever snit he'd been in about sleeping in the same bed, the practice had become routine—and it didn't escape Starsky how...weird that was. There was nothing weird about it, though, despite what anyone else would think of it. Hutch was better off there than on the couch, they both had plenty of room, and in the first few nights of his convalescence at home, Starsky had drawn great comfort from knowing his partner was so close.

The talks had been the best side effect, though. In the dark of night, before they'd finally drift off to sleep, they'd have some of the best talks they'd ever had in their lives. About life, love, inflation, politics, sex, death, taxes, women, and the stupidity of the sportscaster on the local station that carried the eleven o'clock news they watched before turning in. It reminded Starsky of the two or three occasions when, as a child, he'd stayed over at his then best friend's house and they'd kept each other up most of the night talking, joking and clowning around.

Days were relaxed, unstructured spans of hours during which Starsky merely soaked up the rest and the presence of his partner—the real presence of his partner—as if they were in some sort of odd "honeymoon phase" of their friendship all over again. Gone were the days of the long silences, the emotional tension and the physical distance. They were like two halves of a whole again, and Starsky couldn't help but feel that whatever it had taken to reach this point was worth it.

Until he stretched too far, tried to lift something too heavy or forgot himself and sprinted up the front steps and arrived at the top winded and sweaty. Or until Hutch dropped him off at the rehab center, shooed away with assurances that Starsky would be fine. Hutch had accepted the explanation for Starsky never wanting him to step inside or hang around that it might be awkward for the others in the group, and that Starsky needed to do something for himself. Honoring his partner's apparent desire to handle his rehab alone, Hutch loyally remained out in the car, waiting for Starsky to come out when he was done, even if he was running late. Hutch never set foot inside the building.

The sessions themselves were physically tiring and significantly painful, and Starsky was torn between hating himself for wallowing in self-pity when so many of his colleagues in therapy were permanently crippled or disabled, and feeling a sense of hopelessness himself that he had been relegated to the "cripples' club"—grouped with a bunch of guys who would never see street duty again.

Truthfully, Starsky was beginning to think that maybe the powers that be who had placed him in a rehab group with all permanently disabled patients were right. Maybe he was all washed up. His showing on the treadmill and with the hand weights was pathetic. Even the therapist seemed frustrated working with him, despite her usual perpetual cheeriness.

Faced with Hutch's own brand of good cheer and hopefulness for his recovery, Starsky had taken to doing something he hated himself for wholeheartedly—routinely lying to his partner about his progress in rehab. He couldn't bear to tell him how bad it was, how slow his progress was. How much better his permanently disabled group colleagues were doing.

Haunted by that thought, he turned his attention back to his camera. He was busily checking the rewinding of the film when Hutch emerged onto the patio.

"You want to try a little jogging?" he asked hopefully. Starsky had been out of the hospital two weeks now, and he knew Hutch's leave was rapidly dwindling. By right, he should have made his first feeble attempt at jogging at least a week earlier. Given his sorry showing on the treadmill at his last therapy session, he couldn't envision jogging more than a few feet—but then, maybe out in the fresh air, with Hutch, he'd feel more motivated. Maybe one of these days, things would start getting easier.

"I guess we oughtta." Starsky stood up and headed toward the house.

"We can drop your film off," Hutch added, as if offering an incentive to a reluctant child.

"We could do that from the car, but yeah, we can do it while we're out," Starsky retorted, disliking himself a bit for not letting Hutch have the small victory of believing he'd lured Starsky out for a jog with his carefully-timed promise.

"Maybe you'll meet a good-looking lady," Hutch offered, undaunted. Starsky followed him inside and went into the bedroom to change into shorts and a t-shirt.

"Yeah, right. Only people out in the park this time'a day are married ladies with baby buggies and little old ladies."

"You have a way with little old ladies. Some of those women are loaded, Starsk. You could charm one and end up with that Ferrari you've always wanted."

"Thanks for the advice," Starsky shot back, going into his room and digging through the dresser drawers until he found the clothes he needed.

**********

They walked to the park, and Starsky found himself wondering how he was going to jog when the walk had already taken the wind out of his sails.

"Let's just do once around, at a real easy pace, huh?" Hutch suggested.

"You wanna go on ahead? I'm not gonna be very fast."

"I haven't exactly been burning up the pavement the last few months. Let's just take it slow and if I need to get a faster run in before we leave, you can wait for me."

"Okay."

Together, they started at a beginner's pace down the cement path. Starsky could feel the pull on his lungs, especially on his right side, almost instantly. His legs were tired and starting to feel crampy before they'd gotten a third of the way around the park. Halfway there, he staggered to a stop, gasping for breath, hands resting on his knees while he tried to gulp in oxygen. Hutch finally noticed the absence of his running mate and quickly returned to the spot where Starsky had stopped.

"You okay, buddy?" He rested a hand on Starsky's shoulder, watching him worriedly.

"Just couldn't go any farther," Starsky managed between breaths.

"Relax and catch your breath, buddy. There's no rush. You want to sit down or try to keep stretching your legs a little?"

"I gotta sit down, Hutch, before I fall down." Starsky staggered over to a nearby bench and sat heavily on one end of it. Hutch sat next to him. "Shit."

"It's your first try actually jogging, Starsk—"

"It's been two months!" Starsky shot back. "How can it still hurt this much after two months, huh?" he added in a softer tone.

"When the doctor first came out?" Hutch paused, swallowing. "All he'd say was ‘he suffered massive damage'. God, Starsk, he didn't seem to even know where to start to tell me. I'm not trying to make you feel worse, but you've got to understand that your body was devastated by those bullets, and you fought for your life and you won. You beat it. But your body's got a long battle ahead to get back to full speed. It'll happen, but it's going to take time."

"How long?" Starsky asked, not really expecting an answer. His voice was laden with the discouragement he felt. He looked at Hutch, at the long, strong body and the powerful legs, and he noted the fact his partner wasn't even breathing heavily and most certainly hadn't worked up a sweat. "It's no use."

"Damn it, Starsky, you ran a fourth of the path around the park once and you're ready to give up! It's a damn good thing you didn't take that attitude in the hospital or you'd be six feet under the fucking ground right now!" Genuinely angry now, Hutch was up and off the bench. "When you get done sitting here feeling sorry for yourself like some pathetic old man, you can haul your ass up and try joining me. If you can spend all that time running in place on a goddamned treadmill in your therapy sessions, you know damned well you can do it out here!" With that, Hutch trotted off to the path and started out again.

Starsky knew he should be angry, knew his spirit should rebel against the tongue-lashing the way Hutch had intended. He knew what his partner was doing—he was looking for some way to provoke that fight and drive that could move mountains when Starsky was determined enough. No matter how well Starsky knew in his head that the cruel words were motivators spoken in love, his heart took the blows like a series of little daggers. He watched Hutch jogging effortlessly along the path, and was surprised when the image became blurred and wavy until he realized he was seeing it through tears.

"Great. Fucking useless sniveling piece of shit liar," he berated himself, wiping at his eyes. Still, he didn't have the fight to jump up and run after his partner. Defeated, he waited until Hutch was at a point in the path where his back was turned, got up off the bench and started walking slowly toward home.

Hutch mounted the front steps to Starsky's place with a heavy heart. Not only was his partner not thriving physically as he'd hoped, but the challenge that would have had the old Starsky up and running again if he'd had to do it on his hands and knees didn't even register. Starsky had merely taken the verbal beating and walked away.

When he walked in the front door, he found the inside of the apartment strangely silent.

"Starsky?" Hutch called out, but there was no reply. "Starsk, come on, I'm sorry, okay?" He walked into the bedroom, stopping short when he saw it was empty. Undaunted, he went into the bathroom, but found that it, too, was vacant. Worried now, he rushed through the rest of the apartment, but there was no sign of Starsky.

He stood in the middle of the living room and debated what to do next. Starsky had left on foot and didn't have much energy. There was a very limited number of places he could go, and the radius could be pretty easily patrolled in the car. Unless, of course...

Hutch dismissed the chilling thought of his still-frail partner being accosted, abducted or otherwise assaulted. Both of them knew they lived with the risk of any one of their old cases revisiting them someday—Gunther alone could have tentacles anywhere, which might surface at any time.

Prepared to begin searching, Hutch was about to grab his car keys and start out when the door opened and Starsky walked into the apartment.

"You're home already," he said quietly, walking past Hutch toward the bedroom.

"What the hell was that all about?" Hutch demanded, the sudden letdown of all that worry making him lash out angrily.

"I needed some time to think. So I went for a walk. Seem to be able t'do that much." Starsky pulled his t-shirt over his head and threw it on the floor, then slipped out of his shorts, sending them flying to join it. "I'm gonna take a shower." Clad in just his briefs, he disappeared into the bathroom.

"Did it ever occur to you that I might wonder where you were?" Hutch challenged, following Starsky into the bathroom.

"Unless you wanna get in the shower with me, get outta my face, because I'm not standin' here and fightin' with you until I have one."

"Look, I'm sorry I came on so strong in the park, but you have to push yourself, Starsky. This recovery isn't going to happen by itself. You're going to have to fight for it."

"Thanks for the news flash, Hutch." Starsky wrenched the two taps on, his gestures rough with his anger. "Don't talk to me about fighting. Don't talk to me about recoveries! Don't fucking talk to me about anything until you know what the fuck you're talking about!"

"Where do you think I've been the last two months? Huh? On a beach in the Riviera? Who do you think's been right here with you, watching you fight for your life? I know what you've been through!"

"Until you take four or five steps and feel like your whole body's gonna give out on you, save your fucking pep talks. Now get outta here and let me take a shower."

"I know you're frustrated, but don't take it out on me!" Hutch shouted back, storming out of the bathroom.

"Why not?! You're the one frustratin' me!" Starsky shot back, slamming the door behind Hutch, barely missing hitting him with it as he left the room.

Well, Hutchinson, you wanted to make him angry. Congratulations—he's angry all right. And discouraged and miserable. Maybe those two psychology classes you took in college weren't sufficient background to start playing headgames on Starsky when he's probably the most emotionally fragile he's ever been.

Hoping a decent dinner might mend some fences and cheer Starsky up a little, Hutch pulled out all the makings for the Paul Muni special. This was going to take some effort.

**********

Starsky finished his shower and stood in front of the bathroom mirror. It was the only mirror in the house he was willing to linger near these days. It ended at his upper chest, which was still unmarred by the ravages of bullets and incisions. In here, he could pretend the whole thing never happened. The same man looked back at him that he'd seen the morning before it all happened.

He felt a stabbing pain in his chest that had nothing to do with his physical condition as he remembered that last wonderful morning of feeling whole. As if he could take on the world. Like nothing could stop him. Like he was invincible. Strong. Virile. Attractive. After the accolades of the department and the press in bringing down McClellan and the whole sticky mess that was Sunrise Mortgage, after finishing what Lionel Rigger started, they'd both felt damn near unstoppable and more than a little arrogant.

Arrogant enough to play ping-pong in the squad room just because there was some painting going on—despite the fact their colleagues had found alternate workspaces and were doing their jobs like good little cops. Arrogant enough to think they'd dismantled a monster that had slain Rigger, Thomas May, Clayburn, and even McClellan. Arrogant enough that they didn't even really entertain the fear that something that huge would blow up in their faces. So fucking arrogant that they never dreamed the bad guys wouldn't just stay down like they did after the final shootouts in any good western while the heroes made their bow-legged strides into the sunset, tipping their hats at the ladies as the credits rolled.

He leaned on the sink and closed his eyes, resting his head against the mirror, trying desperately to put the scattered images of those final minutes into some sort of order. The crunch of metal, the shattering of glass...

...oh, God, and the feeling of utter helplessness...

As Starsky opened his eyes again and regarded the man in the mirror once more, he realized that was what had lived with him as his constant companion from the horrible split second he'd realized he was a dead man, trapped between the Torino and the shooter with no time to drop or get a shot off of his own...to this afternoon, when Hutch had made his angry challenge and run off, and all Starsky could do was watch him go.

Helplessness...

He had no choices anymore. Gunther's hired killers had made all the choices at that moment, and now his torn body made the choices for him. He had no say in anything, and hadn't for a long time. For two whole months. He'd even turned into a fucking liar, telling his partner pretty stories about how well he was doing in his rehab sessions. That shit would hit the fan any day now, and what felt worse than the thought of being "found out" by Dobey and the PD was the thought of how Hutch was going to feel when he realized Starsky was lying to him...stringing him along like some outsider instead of the person who used to sit in his hospital room and hold him when he was hurting from those first therapy sessions...who cleaned up after him when the antibiotics wreaked havoc on him with unpleasant side effects...

The same Hutch who left him on the bench and jogged fluidly down the path without him... it was only a matter of time before the whole world picked up pace and he was left sitting on a bench, watching.

When the tears came this time, they didn't respond to his angry denial of their existence. They fell, hard, and his body convulsed with them. God, why did you let me live to make me live like this? he thought miserably, giving in to the tears and smacking his head against the mirror. Once...twice...

"Starsky!"

Hutch's voice, and the next impact between head and mirror didn't work somehow. There was something impeding it.

"Starsky, come on, babe, stop it."

It wasn't until he focused on Hutch's voice that he realized his head was throbbing and there was something hot and wet near his hairline, pressed beneath Hutch's hand.

"Sit down, Starsk," Hutch said gently, guiding him back to sit on the closed toilet. "Hey, look at me, huh? Your vision okay?" Hutch asked worriedly. Starsky could see him plainly, so he nodded. He knew he was still half-crying, but he didn't care anymore. He didn't have any dignity left, so why split hairs over a few tears while he sat naked on the lid of the toilet with blood dribbling down his forehead?

"It's gonna be okay, buddy. Here, hold this against your head. Keep some pressure on it." Hutch pressed Starsky's hand against a towel he used to replace the pressure of his bare hand, which wasn't doing much to stem the flow anymore. "Bleeding like a son of a bitch," Hutch grumbled, rinsing the blood off his hands and grabbing a washcloth, which he wet and then used to clean off Starsky's forehead.

"Is it bad?" Starsky finally asked as Hutch ventured to look under the towel.

"The bleeding's stopping," Hutch said, letting out a little sigh of relief. "Looks like you've got a nasty cut, but I don't think you need stitches."

"Got ‘em everywhere else, might as well have a head that matches," Starsky muttered.

"This is going to sting a little, but I need to clean it." Hutch did his first aid solicitously and gently, like he always did, finally completing the process by taping a small gauze bandage in place. "I'll get you some clothes, buddy. Just sit there a minute and get your bearings, huh?" Hutch patted his shoulder and went back into the bedroom.

A moment later, he was back, helping Starsky get into underwear, a comfortable old gray sweatsuit and socks. On an impulse, Starsky wound his arms around Hutch and held on tight, burying his face against his partner's neck.

"I'm sorry, babe, so sorry," Hutch said softly, stroking his hair. "I just wanted to help...I didn't mean to hurt you. I didn't mean any of it."

"Not your fault," Starsky managed, not wanting to talk too much. His hold on his emotions was tenuous enough, and he wasn't prepared to start them all up again. "I'm so tired," he admitted, meaning it in a much broader sense than the physical or immediate. He leaned against Hutch now as much in need of comfort as of rest. It felt so good to have that strong, healthy body holding him up and supporting him.

"It'll get better, buddy. I promise," Hutch said, patting his back. "Don't give up, okay? You're gonna beat this."

"Sometimes the road just looks too long, y'know?" Starsky muttered shakily.

"I know. That's why you don't make the trip by yourself."

"Sorry about...you know," Starsky pulled back. "Bein' such an ass."

"That's okay. I'm used to it," Hutch joked, and Starsky had to chortle a little.

"Don't know what got into me," he said, raising a hand to feel the bandage on his upper forehead, partially hidden by his hair.

"Probably having a horse's ass for a partner," Hutch retorted, steering him toward the living room.

"I've been dealin' with that for years without bashin' my head in," Starsky responded, grinning a little.

"Asshole," Hutch replied eloquently, depositing Starsky on the couch. "Can I trust you not to hurt yourself while I finish dinner?" he teased, and Starsky rolled his eyes, then winced.

"Think I'll just sit tight."

"I'll get you some ice." Hutch filled an ice bag and returned, handing it to Starsky. "You better put that on it for a while, keep the swelling down."

"Thanks."

"Starsk...about all that crap in the park...I—"

"I know what you were tryin' to do, buddy. Normally it would'a worked, but...it doesn't matter how much I wanna do somethin' if my body won't do it."

"I know," Hutch acknowledged, nodding. "I just can't figure how, when you've had such good results on the treadmill, you'd get winded so fast in the park."

"Hutch, I...I gotta talk to you." Starsky took the icebag off his head and sighed, looking at it as he held it in his hands. "I...I lied to ya."

"Lied to me? About what?" Hutch frowned, drawing his brows together. He sat on the coffee table across from where Starsky sat on the couch. "Starsk?"

"My rehab...is a disaster, Hutch. I...I can't run on the treadmill or anyplace else. The guy with one arm can bench press more than I can. The guys who are permanently crippled are doin' better than me."

"But you said—"

"I lied." Starsky hated the hurt and confusion in Hutch's eyes, hated himself even more for causing it. "You were so...upbeat about everything...about my rehab, about goin' back on the streets together. I just...I just couldn't come out an' tell you that I failed." Starsky felt his voice shake on those last words. "I can barely keep up a good walking pace on the treadmill, and my muscles cramp up after I use the pool, and...I just... everything hurts all the time. I'm doin' lousy. It's not working."

"Why didn't you just tell me, Starsk?" The hurt was in Hutch's voice, but not the reproach Starsky had expected—and felt he deserved. Only gentleness. Hutch moved off the coffee table and sat next to him now.

"'Cause maybe I wasn't ready to give up on the dream just yet," he managed, his voice stretched to where it was barely audible, trying to hold back tears. "You and me together on the streets, like before...it's what I lived for and it's not gonna happen. I can't do it, Hutch. My body won't do it."

"Come here, babe." Hutch pulled him into a hug, one hand rubbing gently up and down his back. "Let it go, Starsk. Come on." The force and loudness of the sobs that gushed out then shocked Starsky with their intensity. He'd been holding so much back, so long, and bearing the burden of his faltering recovery mostly alone since he'd been released from the hospital. Now he'd confessed everything to Hutch, and there had been no angry recriminations and no blame leveled at him for lying through his teeth—blame he felt sure he deserved.

Instead, Hutch was just sitting there holding him, letting him cry it out, rocking slightly, whispering words of comfort.

"I'm sorry...I lied," Starsky managed, needing to say it even if Hutch wasn't insisting on hearing it.

"Shhh. I know you are, buddy. I'm not mad. It's okay."

"You oughtta be," Starsky croaked, and he felt a little rumble of laughter in Hutch's chest.

"Probably," he admitted, the smile plain in his voice. "Aw, Starsk, we knew this was going to be hard and we knew going in that it was a long shot."

"And we lost," Starsky said miserably, his voice little more than a breath against Hutch's neck.

"No. Nobody's lost yet, babe. We're still in the game. We just had a setback. We weren't working together—and we do our best work together, right?"

"I'm washed up, Hutch. I can't do it. I'm never gonna be able to be what I was before."

"Don't worry about that now."

"But what's the point'a all this therapy—"

"The point is for you to bring your level of mobility and health and activity up to the best it can be. The point is for you to have a healthy, active, productive, good life. The point is for you to get as far as you can get, to do as much as you can do. If that someday includes going back on active duty, that's great—but if it doesn't, it will still be worthwhile, and still important. So you can walk, run, dance, play tennis, shoot hoops—have a life."

"I feel like...such a failure...when I see those guys...and it's so much worse for them...none of ‘em are gonna get over what's wrong with ‘em. And they're just so...their attitudes are so much better'n mine, and they do better."

"You're in a group with all permanently disabled guys?" Hutch asked, stroking Starsky's hair a little. Despite the fact the worst of the tears had passed, Hutch made no move to break the embrace. Could be because I've got his shirt in a death grip, Starsky thought suddenly, realizing he'd grabbed onto the back of Hutch's shirt with such intensity that he was amazed it was still on his partner's body and not completely balled up in his hands. He relaxed that grip, but wound his arms around Hutch instead. The need for the embrace was like a physical ache. Hutch's response was a little pat to his back.

"Mostly. They're really good guys...they kinda cheer me on, y'know? Like I'm the only one who's got any hope'a gettin' better, and they all wanna see it happen."

"This therapist...does she spend a lot of one-on-one time with you?"

"Some...as much as she can. I think I'm makin' her reconsider her career choice."

"Sounds like you're in the wrong kind of group, buddy. You're not permanently disabled, and you're not permanently sidelined from street duty—at least not officially, and not yet. We don't know yet how far your recovery's going."

"I don't think there's lots of choices in what kinds of therapy groups you can get into. They put all the basket cases together and stick some therapist with tryin' to do what she can with ‘em."

"Don't." Hutch did pull back now, taking Starsky by the shoulders. "You're not a basket case. Do you think those other guys there, fighting to get their lives back...do you think they're all basket cases?"

"No, no, they're not, but...but they've got reasons to not be able to get any better. I just...I can't. I feel like I'm lettin' them down when I can't." Starsky swallowed. "And I know I'm lettin' you down...us down."

"Hey." Hutch waited until Starsky mustered the courage to look him in the eyes. "The only way you could have let me down is if you hadn't opened your eyes that day in the hospital. Now that would've been a letdown. So are we clear about that? No more of this Pollyanna shit, we're gonna be straight with each other from now on?"

"Yeah," Starsky agreed, feeling he deserved worse than so gentle and affectionate a tongue-lashing. "I'm sorry I lied to you."

"I know. I can't say it doesn't hurt that you didn't level with me, but I can understand it. You want to try blowing your nose? You look like hell." Hutch grabbed a couple tissues out of the box on the coffee table and thrust them into Starsky's hand.

"Smells like dinner's burning," Starsky said.

"Well...I'll throw a little cayenne pepper on it and it'll be blackened cajun beef." Hutch smiled at his own humor, and Starsky had to laugh then. "Tomorrow, we're going to meet with your doctor and see if he has any ideas on some better options for rehab, and then we'll take a walk to the park—nice and slow—and have a picnic or something. Sound good?"

"Yeah...but, Hutch, what're those other guys gonna think if I just disappear outta that rehab group?"

"That your doctor changed your instructions. This isn't personal—it's about you getting the best therapy you can get, and working in an environment that's right for you. Maybe we need to go to the gym and mess around a little on our own sometime."

"Yeah, maybe."

"Maybe we'll have some cold roast beef for sandwiches," Hutch said as he returned to the kitchen.

"Hey, I thought I smelled somethin' good," Starsky responded, his enthusiasm for his favorite dish cutting through his growing headache. Smart, Starsky. You've got one thing that doesn't hurt, so you smash it into a mirror until it throbs like everything else on your patched-together carcass.

Dinner was shared with the usual friendly conversation and joking around that had made the last two weeks seem to fly by. Starsky knew Hutch's leave was up in less than a week, and he tried to push aside the unease he felt at Hutch heading back out on the streets without him.

"Starsk?"

"Huh?"

"You want anymore?" Hutch asked, smiling a little, obviously amused at Starsky's utter preoccupation.

"No, thanks. I'm full." Starsky smiled. "It was great, though."

"Yeah, it wasn't bad, considering it was cooked almost to the point of being jerky. Enough left over to make sandwiches," Hutch announced, lifting the lid and inspecting the remains.

"So, uh, you lookin' forward to gettin' back to work?" Starsky blurted a little clumsily. It sounded stilted, like a question you'd ask a stranger, but he had to know. He had to know how Hutch felt about the impending change in status.

"Sure. When you're going back with me—so don't get any ideas that we're giving up on that yet. This routine with putting in time with a temporary partner is just a matter of keeping my job in the meantime." Hutch started clearing the table. "Training some wet-behind-the-ears rookie isn't my idea of a good time."

"Don't let him get you killed, Hutch," Starsky said solemnly to his partner's back as he was scraping a plate into the sink. Setting it aside, Hutch turned to look at Starsky.

"Where'd that come from?"

"I mean it. Don't...don't go out there and let some inexperienced little twerp end up costin' you your life. ‘Cause whoever he is, he ain't gonna be worth it."

"I'll be careful, Starsk." Hutch returned to the table and picked up more of the dirty dishes. "You know when I was in that stupid leg cast after my accident? I really hated sitting on the sidelines while you went back to work with that new guy."

"Sanders? Please. That guy was a moron."

"My point exactly. I kept figuring you'd end up getting hurt because of his stupidity. So I know it's hard not to be the one doing the back-watching. But I'll be okay—can't very well get you recovered and then have me down for the count."

"Remember that."

"I will, buddy." Hutch smiled reassuringly as he pulled a container of ice cream out of the freezer and set it on the counter. "I figured it would soften up by the time we get the dishes done. There're a couple movies on tonight."

Don't let him get you killed, Hutch...and...and...don't like him too much...

**********

Dr. Norman, Starsky's primary physician since his surgery, listened to everything both men had to say—from Starsky's concerns about the sluggishness of his progress to Hutch's concerns that Starsky was not in the right environment to promote that progress. A middle- aged man with thick brown hair and wire-framed glasses, he leaned back in his desk chair and contemplated what he'd been told.

"David was placed in a therapy group whose activities would be compatible with his stage of recovery. The other patients in the group are all able to engage in light exercise and need to build their upper body strength. A couple of the patients are permanently wheelchair-bound, so obviously they aren't working with the treadmill, but there are at least two others who are. So I certainly don't feel we've relegated David to a group with dismal prognoses," he concluded, using a term Hutch had used in the first part of their conversation.

"None of them are returning to active duty," Hutch said.

"Well, it's not likely that David will be either, so perhaps this is the time to start facing some facts about the future and setting our sights on a realistic goal."

Hutch felt as if he'd been sucker-punched, and he couldn't even imagine how Starsky felt. He stole a glance at his partner and saw that Starsky was chillingly still and silent, his eyes...glassy as they stared at some point on the doctor's desk, not rising to look at the doctor himself.

"Isn't this a little early in his recovery to be closing doors?" Hutch asked, fighting to keep his voice even.

"I like to think of it as opening more accessible doors," the doctor said. "There's nothing to indicate, from David's progress to date, that he'll be capable of reaching the level of fitness or endurance that active duty would entail."

"So you're just going to give up on him? That easily? Not even try anything different?" Hutch demanded, standing. "You call yourself a doctor?"

"Hutch," Starsky admonished quietly. "Don't."

"You don't give up on a healthy man his age and relegate him to permanent disability without a fight!"

"Sergeant Hutchinson, you obviously feel you're better qualified to handle this case than I am, so I feel we're wasting our time here. If your department will accept your assessment of Mr. Starsky's physical condition, you may feel free to disregard my opinion."

"I already have disregarded your opinion, when it became clear you'd already given up on him."

"Let's get outta here." Starsky stood and walked out the door of the office.

"I thought a doctor's goal was supposed to be healing. What you've done to him...to his fight..."

"It's never easy to accept a change in your life as the result of a serious injury or accident. Fight is a good thing, provided it's channeled in a productive way. Building strength and stamina are goals that are worthy ends in themselves, and those are the goals your partner has to concentrate on. Making him work for pie in the sky fantasies isn't doing him any favors. He has to accept his limitations, and at some point, you'll have to do the same."

"When I'm sure of what his limitations are, I'll accept them," Hutch retorted angrily, snatching his jacket off the back of his chair and striding determinedly down the hall of the hospital, looking for Starsky. He found him sitting slumped in a chair in a nearby waiting room. "Starsk—"

"He didn't tell me anything I didn't already know," Starsky said, forcing a little smile. "It's funny. You remember when Lisa Graham was raped, and we were goin' through all'a that stuff with the pre-trial hearing?"

"Yeah." Hutch sat in the chair next to Starsky's.

"I know how she felt now—you know, when she ran out into the hall, after hearin' the assistant DA talking about how she had the mind of a ten-year-old?"

"Starsk—"

"It was true; she did. Still does. But hearin' it that way...she even said it was nothing she didn't already know. Even Lisa with the mind of a little girl...she knew what her limitations were. She knew the rest of the world was moving past her, that other girls were becoming women in their minds as well as their bodies. And she was just sitting on the sidelines. Just like I know the handwriting's on the wall for me. But hearin' it...God, it hurts, y'know?"

"Nobody ever made any real progress thinking about limitations."

"Hutch...I know you don't wanna face that somebody did die by the Torino that day, but he did. Detective Sergeant David Starsky died in the line of duty. Your partner's gone. I'm what's left."

"You're going to let a jerk like that tell you it's all over?" Hutch challenged.

"I know how I feel, Hutch. I'm in pain, and everything's so damned hard..."

"That's real fucking sad, Starsky. It's hard. It's hard and it hurts, so let's just accept that it's hopeless and then we can give up."

"Maybe I can't be what you want me to be anymore, Hutch. Maybe you've gotta decide if you can handle it if I'm all that survived—if the cop you rode with all'a those years is dead and I'm all that's left."

"Starsk..." Hutch closed his eyes. Those softly-spoken, pain-laced words from Starsky cut into his soul in a way nothing the doctor said ever could.

"I'm not done tryin', Hutch. I'll keep tryin' to do better with my therapy and my exercises, but it might not work."

"I told you last night that you being alive is what matters most to me. You know that."

"Yeah, I know," Starsky said, then sighed. "I got a therapy appointment in an hour."

"What do you say we blow it off? Play hooky?" Hutch asked, smiling. Starsky looked stunned.

"This from the guy who was just givin' me this big pep talk about not quitting?"

"Maybe I just want to spend the day with you—and we'll worry about rehabilitating Sergeant Starsky tomorrow." Hutch smiled, and it broadened at Starsky's return grin.

**********

Starsky found he was able to keep up a pretty good pace on their walk to the park, and even carried the picnic basket the first half of the journey. They arrived a little past noon, and after spreading out their blanket and devouring the lunch they'd brought, they spent most of the day either lounging in the sun or playing a little catch with a ball Hutch had brought along. The exercise was moderate, but it made Starsky reach more, utilize his upper body, and do some stooping. [insert 501-1.jpg]

Hutch, for his part, hadn't really been sure how his partner would react to getting up off the blanket and doing something physical for a little while, but Starsky seemed to enjoy moving around and doing something that taxed him a little, but not painfully. They'd rested up by stretching out in the sun again, and after a while, Hutch sat up and pulled out the guitar he'd brought along and strummed away, singing a little. It was a Tuesday afternoon, and they had their little spot mostly to themselves. His playing was a little rusty, but as long as it was just Starsky—who always unreservedly loved anything he played or sang, even if it wasn't all that great—Hutch could relax and have some fun with his music—something he hadn't done for many long months. Their impromptu sing-a-long on "Black Bean Soup" had greatly amused an elderly couple who had taken up residence on a nearby park bench. Both had been tapping their toes by the time the song was finished.

Armed with his now-omnipresent camera, Starsky had taken some photos and urged Hutch to try out the new lens. He'd even flagged down a young woman with a little girl in tow and asked if she'd use his camera to take a couple photos of Hutch and himself together. They had almost nothing of recent vintage, and it seemed right to start celebrating the fact they were alive and together in little ways—like capturing good moments in pictures.

It was nearly dinnertime when they started back for the apartment, Starsky keeping up with Hutch's pace almost unconsciously as they walked home. He was visibly winded by the time they climbed the front steps, but his mood didn't falter. Seeing what good therapy enjoying life together seemed to be for his partner, Hutch reached a decision.

"I'm going to talk to Dobey about putting me on third shift when I go back on duty," Hutch said, unpacking the picnic basket. Starsky looked up from where he was tuning in the evening news.

"Nights? I thought you'd work days...y'know, somethin' not so dangerous while you were breakin' in some kid."

"If I worked eleven to seven, I could come home, get some sleep, and then still have some good hours through the day. We could still go to the gym together...do a few things. It's not too often we get some downtime to enjoy life a little."

"What about my rehab sessions? I can't go to the gym every day and go to rehab, too."

"I was thinking maybe we'd try it on our own for a while."

"Just me and thee, huh?" Starsky asked, smiling a little.

"Yeah...like we've said before...it's ‘who do we trust time'."

"The doc could be right."

"Sure, he could be." Hutch finished putting away the basket and disposing of the debris. "Or he could be full'a shit, too."

"I don't know about nights though. I think I'd rather you went on days, buddy. At least it's not as rough as night work. I'm not gonna be there watchin' your back," Starsky said, turning off the news. Obviously he felt this needed settling with no distractions.

"Maybe Dobey'll put me with somebody experienced. If so, doing a little night work would be no big deal."

"Okay, maybe," Starsky conceded, as if Hutch needed his permission to move forward with the plan. Of course, Hutch had no plans to do something that would make Starsky unhappy. Not now, not when he'd just seemed to take a hold again. "Depends on who ya get for a partner."

"Temporary partner. Sub. Fill-in. I've already got a partner, remember?" It felt so damn good to say that to a living, healthy, breathing Starsky instead of insisting on it in view of his comatose body in a hospital bed.

"Yeah, temporary. Don't you forget it either, Blondie," Starsky added, turning the TV back on and grinning a little.

"That's the spirit," Hutch responded, chuckling a little.

I love you, Starsk, Hutch thought, smiling at his partner before finishing his task and joining him in the living room. I'll love you forever, any way I can...and there'll never be room for any other partner in my life... Hutch gulped almost audibly at the thought, and then he let a sort of acceptance wash over him. No matter what form their love and their life together took, it was all he wanted, all he needed...and all his heart had room for anymore. Whatever Starsky could or couldn't be professionally, he'd always be Hutch's partner where it mattered...in his heart.

If he had to pay for that later, pay with the pain of watching Starsky give his heart to a wife and children someday, there was very little he could do about it now. His own heart had gone where it pleased, and it obviously planned on spending its life with Starsky, for better or worse.

**********

He felt lopsided. Walking into headquarters alone, without Starsky at his side, seemed cosmically wrong somehow. As if the planets were slipping out of alignment because of the imbalance. When he'd left Starsky's place, the man himself had been situated on the couch, devouring a book and guzzling a tall glass of grape juice. Despite Starsky's love of soft drinks, Hutch had managed to get some fruit juices down his throat now and then during his recovery—and the one he'd always chosen in the hospital was grape juice.

They'd spent the earlier part of the day taking a long, brisk walk to the park, and around it twice, then home. Two weeks after the painful failure of the first jogging attempt, Starsky was doing great—and every day he seemed a little better able to endure the exercise. While Hutch had initially worried about Starsky accepting his limitations, Hutch had found out, the hard way, that he was the one who had the most to learn about accepting that Starsky was not the same anymore. No one knew that better than Starsky himself.

Starsky would progress—that much Hutch felt confident of now—but his future was uncertain. Hutch could no longer drag Starsky out early in the morning and insist that he jog at a certain pace or challenge him to it—the way he had in the old days, when Starsky could do just about anything by the sheer force of his determination not to let Hutch get the upper hand. Challenges like those now just reminded Starsky of his limitations and tore down his morale. Gentle encouragement and teamwork had moved mountains in recent days. Starsky's weight was up, he was exercising—and pushing himself—and his indomitable spirit had gotten its second wind.

Up yours, Dr. Norman, Hutch thought triumphantly.

Cheered by those thoughts, Hutch pushed open the doors of the squad room, and after exchanging a few brief greetings with some of the old gang—and answering a myriad of questions about Starsky—he headed to Dobey's office and poked his head in the open door.

"Come in, Hutchinson," Dobey said cheerfully. It wasn't often one caught Dobey "cheerful", but seeing at least half of his favorite team resurface seemed to lift his spirits. "How's Starsky?"

"Better. He's exercising, working on building up his stamina. I've got to level with you—we're looking for another doctor. Norman was really dismal and negative about Starsky's prognosis, and we don't need that now." Hutch realized he'd said "we" and was relieved Dobey didn't seem to react to it. He'd come to think of Starsky's recovery as a joint effort, and any negative verdict the doctor gave hurt Hutch as much—if not more—than his partner.

"You better find one soon. And Hutch, you're going to have to be prepared to face facts if Starsky can't make it back to active duty."

"I know that, sir. But we're not prepared to accept premature pessimism. Starsky stopped going to rehab, but he's been exercising a lot on his own, with me, and he's really doing great."

"That's great news," Dobey responded, still smiling. "So, we need to get you back on the roster," he said, opening a manila folder.

"Actually, Captain, I was wondering if it would be possible for me to work nights."

"Nights?" Dobey frowned. "I thought you wanted days if possible."

"I did, but if I work third shift, I can still have some time to help Starsky with his workouts as he gets into more advanced exercising." Hutch had always felt sorry for the poor schmucks who had to alter their schedules to meet family demands, but now, oddly, pleading his case to meet the needs of what he'd come to think of as his little family of two, he felt sort of...warm inside. Connected.

"Well, I think that might work out well, actually. I had planned to pair you up with Lizzie Thorpe—she's going to be doing more significant undercover work now than decoy work—but I do have another detective transferring here from the Phoenix PD. He's worked the same sort of beat you and Starsky do, and riding with you for a while would be great experience for him—to get him acclimated to this area and the department. Which means I expect you to occasionally follow procedures when you're with this guy," Dobey said, looking up under slightly raised eyebrows. "Which means no unusual radio interference."

"I don't know what you're talking about, Captain," Hutch said, barely able to contain the twitch at the corner of his mouth.

"His name's Arturo Flores. He's a couple years younger, but he's got a damn fine record, including citations for valor and marksmanship."

"Impressive," Hutch conceded, nodding. At least he wasn't training some dim-witted rookie.

"You're planning on coming back to work full time starting..." Dobey flipped a couple papers in the folder, "Wednesday, right?"

"That's right."

"Any reason not to start tonight?"

"I have two days of vacation left," Hutch offered, shrugging. "I'd rather spend the time with Starsky, getting him out and exercising, unless I'm needed here sooner."

"He's going to have to take responsibility for his own recovery now. He's past the point of needing a nursemaid."

"That's true, but...maybe...I'm not past the point of needing to do it," Hutch admitted quietly. "He seems really okay sometimes, and other times, I...I realize how...how different things are."

"Realistically, do you think he'll make it back to active duty?" Dobey asked. "You know him better than the doctors do."

"I think if it's humanly possible, Starsky'll do it. The progress is slower than what we'd hoped—obviously not as good as what Dr. Norman wanted to see. He's just now trying a very little jogging and working with some very small hand weights."

"But the progress is steady, and it's moving in the right direction?"

"Definitely. It's important to him, and he's working hard at it."

"That's good news," Dobey said, smiling. "I'll have to stop in and see him sometime."

"He'd like that." Hutch smiled, thinking of how Starsky had been feeling more than a little forgotten in the last few weeks. Life did indeed go on, and most of their friends had continued on without much of a backward glance. It was commonly known that Starsky was alive and recovering, and most of their colleagues at the department seemed content to leave him to it until he showed back up at work.

"All right, we'll plan on you starting out Wednesday night. Report in here at three on Wednesday, because I'm not waiting around here until eleven to get you matched up with your new partner—"

"Temporary partner, sir," Hutch corrected, knowing his voice came across a bit more forcefully than necessary with Dobey.

"You two can work the three to eleven shift Wednesday, and start eleven to seven on Thursday."

"Great. Thanks, Captain."

**********

Starsky was sitting at the kitchen table sorting photographs when Hutch walked in, carrying Chinese food he'd picked up on the way home. He looked over his partner's shoulder and had to admit that Starsky was a pretty good photographer.

"You get all squared away with Dobey?" Starsky asked, picking up and evaluating a photo of the birds' nest that he considered the best.

"You ought to enter that in something." Hutch took it from him for a closer look. "That's really good."

"Thanks," Starsky responded, smiling and taking the photo back. "Guess if my reinstatement falls through, I can always photograph birds for a living."

"You're getting stronger every day."

"But it's so slow. By the time I can pass the department's tests, we'll be able to put in for retirement."

"It's not that slow, buddy," Hutch responded, chortling. "Just seems like it when you're waiting." Hutch set the food on the counter.

"You get paired up with a meter maid or somethin'?" Starsky persisted, wanting the scoop on Hutch's temporary partner.

"Actually, this guy sounds like he knows his stuff. He's transferring in from the Phoenix PD, and Dobey wants someone to show him the ropes around here. When I asked for nights, he said that was even better—since Flores—that's the new guy—wants to do the kind of work we do anyway. It's what he's been doing in Phoenix." Hutch started unpacking their dinner. "He was going to put me with Lizzie if I was on days."

"She's finally getting a chance to do somethin' more important than playin' decoy, huh?"

"Yeah. It's about time. I think Dobey was a little reluctant to move her into more dangerous work because of her family obligations, but I guess it's what she wants."

"That's gotta be her decision, not Dobey's."

"Agreed," Hutch said, looking at the littered table. "You want to eat in the living room?"

"Guess I'm sorta spread out here," Starsky said, standing. "Sure."

"Dobey said Flores had commendations in his record for valor and marksmanship, and he's a couple years younger than we are. So I guess you won't have to worry about me not having qualified back-up."

"I'm still gonna worry until you've got the right back-up," Starsky said, digging into his food. "Mmmm," he chewed almost reverently. Hutch had stopped at Starsky's favorite Chinese place, and had even used the back door. The slightly frenetic little chef, Harry, had outdone himself. The food was great. "This is good."

"Harry was cooking."

"I know," Starsky said, munching happily. "Nobody does the seasoning like he does." He was quiet a moment while he ate. "Don't get too confident with this Flores guy. Just ‘cause Phoenix thinks he's Dirty Harry."

"I'll be careful, Starsk."

"I thought I was bein' careful, too." Starsky paused. "It's just that split second, and if your partner's not there, or doesn't back you up, then—"

"Fat lot of good I did when you were shot." Hutch set his plate aside, suddenly having little interest in the rest of the food.

"You couldn't'a done anything else—the car was between us. You did what you could. You got help fast."

"The gunfire is what got us the help so fast. I...I froze. And then all I could do was sit on the ground and...and hold you and hope you didn't die in my arms." Hutch swallowed, but the tears were there anyway. "Damn," he cursed softly. He could almost feel Starsky's heavy, dead weight against his body, the warm blood from the chest wound oozing between his fingers as he tried helplessly to stem the flow.

"Hey, Hutch, come on, babe, it's okay." Starsky was beside him now, sliding an arm around his shoulders. "There was nothin' else you could do." Hutch let his head droop on Starsky's shoulder, and soon turned to accept the embrace waiting for him. It felt too damn good to have someone else be strong for him, just for a few minutes. He'd always fed off Starsky's strength—as Starsky did off his—but lately, Starsky had needed all his strength to fuel his own recovery. Until this moment, Hutch hadn't realized he himself needed to recover.

"I'm sorry, I don't—"

"Shh. Just relax, Blintz. I've got ya. It's okay." Starsky rested his head against Hutch's. "I know if there was a way you could'a put yourself between me an' the shooter, you'd'a been there. It all happened too fast. I don't remember all of it, but I know it was lightning fast. I never once blamed you for not doin' something different. There wasn't anything you could do. I'm just so damn glad you didn't get hit. That you're okay. ‘Cause if you hadn't been, I wouldn't'a had much reason for caring if I made it or not."

Hutch soaked up the words and cried silent tears against Starsky's shoulder. He'd felt so...selfish for having the bad memories he had, for being traumatized by something that had left Starsky near death and him without a physical scratch.

"It's gonna be okay, babe. I'm gonna get better. I'll keep workin' on it, I promise. We're gonna have it all again. It's just takin' me some time, and I get frustrated and I know I take it out on you, and...I'm sorry about doin' that. I don't mean to."

"I know you don't." Hutch pulled back and brushed at his eyes. "Don't know where that came from."

"I do. You always bein' strong for me and havin' nobody to lean on. Well, I may not be what I was before, but I'm strong enough for you to start leaning on me a little."

"No matter what happens about the job...I'm so glad you're okay, partner," Hutch said, taking a hold of Starsky's arm and squeezing.

"Hey, Harry's special sauce is gettin' cold." Starsky inclined his head toward the abandoned food plates on the coffee table.

"Can't have that." Hutch accepted his plate from Starsky and then watched as Starsky retrieved his own plate and leaned back in the cushions, not having bothered to move away. Their proximity was unusually close, but it felt good, and Hutch soaked up the warmth and reassurance of it. Like always, Starsky knew what Hutch needed.

**********

Starsky lay on his back staring at the ceiling. Hutch was working his first full eleven to seven shift tonight, and not having his companion on the other side of the bed was a big adjustment. The previous afternoon and evening had been almost unbearably long while Hutch had been at work, but as soon as he'd come in the door at 11:30 and then showered, they'd turned in for the night and talked for two hours solid.

Flores was a thirty-three-year-old Hispanic sergeant with thick dark hair and a ready smile. His mother spoke Spanish as her first language, but he'd grown up fully bilingual. To liven up the rather tawdry task of driving around the streets of the city getting Flores up to speed on the lay of the land, Hutch and he had spoken Spanish for most of their shift. Hutch's Spanish was beautifully fluent, and Starsky could only imagine how much he enjoyed the chance to use it for more than a few sentences.

A native of Phoenix, Flores had moved to Bay City because his wife wanted to be near her family, who were all from California, many of whom were living locally. The couple had one young daughter and a baby on the way. Hutch had been shown photos, and reported that the wife was pretty and the little girl, cute.

The two men had spent their dinner break at Huggy's, and the proprietor himself had eaten with them. Apparently, he and Flores had hit it off quite well. According to Hutch, Flores was outgoing and had a great sense of humor. He was a graduate of USC with a degree in Criminology. The two cops had gotten some laughs out of shared reminiscences of their college days. Flores was an honor student in both high school and college, just like Hutch.

Flores was fucking perfect.

Knowing his spike of jealousy was just the result of his own frustration at not being in on the action, Starsky rolled onto his side and punched his pillow somewhat mercilessly. Maybe if he tried lying with his back to the empty side of the bed, he could just pretend Hutch was back there, and then he could doze off to sleep.

Hutch wasn't always going to be back there, though, even if he wasn't working nights anymore. It was just a matter of time before Hutch moved back to his own place and Starsky knew it. Now was the time for him to get weaned away from Hutch's constant attention and presence. Life had to go back to normal. Tonight was the beginning of that, and despite his best efforts to greet it with philosophical acceptance, it still hurt like hell.

Flopping back over and hugging a pillow, he stared at Hutch's empty spot. He missed Hutch, missed him being there and missed their talks. That first night, Hutch had been right—him sleeping in Starsky's room wasn't a good idea. Now Starsky was used to it, and he'd never been happier than he was with Hutch close by at night. He'd felt comfortable, cozy, and complete for the first time in his life—like everything he needed was right there. And it had been.

But now it was out on the streets with Flores.

Hutch had signed up for night work so they could spend time together through the day, and Starsky did look forward to that wholeheartedly. He'd gone to bed at two, figuring he could still sleep a few hours while Hutch did. Why he was trying to time his sleeping to coincide with Hutch's, he didn't know—it wasn't like they'd be chatting a whole lot. For some reason, he drew comfort from the thought of Hutch climbing into bed with him.

Too drowsy to keep questioning it, he started drifting off to sleep. It was destined to be a fitful night, though, as he would come to frequently and check the clock, plagued by the uneasy feeling of Hutch being out there without him. Their beat wasn't exactly the safest in town, and for all Hutch's positive comments about Flores and his abilities and background, he wasn't Starsky. He didn't love Hutch more than his own life—he wouldn't give his life in a heartbeat to save Hutch's. He'd follow procedure, but he wouldn't die for Hutch. He wouldn't see Hutch as a treasure worth giving everything to protect.

The sun came up pretty much on schedule, and after a night of sleeping in half-hour spurts, Starsky was relieved when he saw the clock reach 7:00. He got up and used the bathroom, got himself a drink of water, and then slid back into bed. At 7:30 he heard the front door, and a few minutes later, Hutch was easing into the bedroom.

"I'm awake," Starsky said.

"That's a new one," Hutch teased, chuckling. "I'm gonna grab a shower." Hutch didn't waste long in the bathroom, and when he came out, Starsky was still awake, lying on his side, staring at the wall while Hutch rifled around through the drawers for underwear. He'd apparently found something, because a moment later Starsky felt the mattress dip behind him and the jostling of Hutch settling in on his side of the bed.

"How'd it go?" Starsky asked.

"Fine. We mainly just rode around, you know, getting him acquainted with places, introducing him to a few people he ought to know. Pretty uneventful." Hutch paused. "You feeling all right, buddy? You're usually dead to the world at this hour unless the alarm goes off."

"I'm okay. Just...wondered how things went." He let a long silence stretch until he feared Hutch would go to sleep before he said what was really on his mind. "You...uh...like working with this guy?" Starsky asked, trying to keep his tone light and conversational. Despite his best efforts, it still sounded pathetically insecure and laced with jealousy—at least to Starsky's ears. It must have sent up some sort of red flag with Hutch as well, because there was movement behind him that was definitely the motion of Hutch turning over to face Starsky's back.

"Hey." A hand pulled gently at his shoulder, and Starsky finally gave in and turned over on his other side, facing Hutch. "He's a sub. A fill-in. He's a nice guy with a good background." Hutch paused. "He is not my partner."

"I know," Starsky said quickly, probably too quickly. "I...I'm glad you got somebody good. Somebody you don't mind too much."

"He'll be okay for a temp, and riding with me's a good chance for him to learn his way around." Hutch patted Starsky's shoulder. "Why don't you try getting a little sleep, huh? We'll have dinner anywhere you want after our workout later."

"Sounds great," Starsky said, forcing a smile and fighting the urge to scoot into Hutch's arms and sleep snuggled against his warmth. The compelling temptation behind that thought was that Hutch would let him do it. Those warm arms would close around him, and Hutch wouldn't question what the need was—he'd just see there was a need and he'd meet it with all the love and tenderness anybody could hope for.

"Sleep tight, buddy," Hutch concluded, smiling and patting Starsky's shoulder again before rolling over, apparently satisfied his work was done there, and Starsky was adequately reassured and assuaged.

Starsky stared at his partner's back for a long time before dozing into a fitful sleep.

**********

"You did great today, Starsk," Hutch said, digging into the plate of spaghetti he'd ordered at the Italian restaurant Starsky had chosen for dinner after the workout.

"I lifted twenty-five pounds, Hutch." Starsky fought the wave of discouragement that brought with it. His "weight-lifting" activities were a joke. Truthfully, he hated that they had to go to a gym to do it at all. Nothing made him feel more emasculated than lying on his back and lifting a barbell with twenty-five pounds on it. He thought it was commendable that the other guys in the gym weren't laughing and pointing.

"You just started lifting. We'll increase it gradually, and you'll be up to your old level before you know it."

"I was up to 150," Starsky said, pushing his lasagna around with his fork.

"You'll get back there."

"I feel like I just lifted 300 instead'a the equivalent of pickin' up a toddler."

"We haven't worked much with developing those muscles, and we need to start. But we have to start slowly. All of those muscles—that whole area of your body—was so significantly impacted by the shooting that we have to work even more carefully with that. Oh, listen, I also got the name of another doctor for us to go see. She sounds pretty good."

"She?" Starsky raised an eyebrow.

"Dr. Janet Fielding. Minnie recommended her."

"How does Minnie know her?" Starsky frowned.

"She's Minnie's aunt, and she also happens to be a very respected doctor in the area. She's an older woman, lots of experience. She's on a couple medical boards. I think we ought to go see her."

"Okay, if you think it's a good idea."

"You need to get signed up with another doctor, buddy. According to Minnie, her aunt has worked with a couple other rehab cases that were pretty serious and had good results."

"I guess you're right...I know I gotta go see a doctor again."

"This one might be a whole different story than Norman. If she's not, we'll keep looking."

"Until we find one that says what we want them to say?" Starsky shook his head.

"No. Until we find one who wants to give you a shot at being all you can be and not dwelling on putting up more barriers in your way."

"Hey, uh, you wanna go hang out at The Pits this weekend? Maybe shoot a little pool?"

"That'd be great," Hutch agreed, his expression brightening. Starsky's behavior had been fairly reclusive following the shooting, and this was the first time it occurred to him to suggest they do something they might have done in the "old days."

"Okay. I think I'm up to shootin' some pool. Whippin' your sorry ass."

"In your dreams, maybe."

"We'll see about that." Starsky grinned a little wickedly and started eating the food he'd been pushing around while they talked.

"Tomorrow, we'll up the ante to thirty pounds, see if you survive it," Hutch said, and he was relieved when Starsky snorted a little laugh.

"You're on."

**********

Janet Fielding was a heavyset black woman in her mid-fifties with graying black hair and a friendly smile. Small glasses hung from a gold chain around her neck. She put them on to make a couple of notes on Starsky's chart.

"David, you've had a pretty rough time of it, but your x-rays look good and your incision and wound sites are healing normally." She read a couple more notes from the previous doctor. After having ordered a number of x-rays and examined Starsky herself, she was now in a position to render her opinion. "How badly do you want to go back on active duty?" she asked, removing her glasses and pinning Starsky with an intent gaze. He was sitting on her examining table, still wearing the hospital gown.

"I can't picture doing something different. I want to be Hutch's partner again."

"Well, here's where we stand." She pulled up a stool and sat down a few feet away. "You had a lot of muscle and tissue damage from the shooting—that's not news to you, I'm sure. You had breaks in your ribs in a couple of spots, and those have healed well—but that's also contributing to the pain you're feeling when you try to stretch your midsection. You've lost a little lung capacity, which is making you sweat and feel so short of breath so easily. You can expand and develop what you have, but it's going to take a lot of hard, painful work."

"I was in a rehab group, and I was doing lousy there. Hutch started going to the gym with me, and I think I'm doing better. I'm not runnin' any marathons, but I'm doin' better."

"Yes, I read your summary of your exercise program and you certainly have progressed from what's noted here from the rehab center," she said, smiling as she referred back to the chart. "That was a bit of a disaster, wasn't it?" Starsky had to laugh at the break in the tension.

"More than a bit. I was hopeless."

"What changed, do you think?"

"I...don't know. I guess I'm just more motivated working out with Hutch."

"Attitude is a huge part of recovery—so if you enjoy working out with Hutch, that's the best thing for you to do."

"I trust him. I know he's not going to push me to do something I can't handle. So even if something hurts, or I feel like I can't do it, I still try."

"You trust Hutch more than you do a qualified therapist?"

"I trust him with my life. He knows me. He knows when I'm whining and giving up and when I really can't take it anymore. The therapist at the hospital, and then the lady at the rehab center...they didn't seem to know the difference. They had charts and lists of stuff I was s'posed to be able to do, and if I couldn't do it, they kept pushin' me."

"You have to do a little pushing to be a good physical therapist. Unfortunately, some of therapy is painful—there's no getting around that. Again, I'm not telling you something you don't already know. But since you trust your partner to help you with your exercising and fitness building, I'd suggest the two of you meet with a qualified physical therapist—I'll recommend someone—and get a program set up. Hutch can help you with it on a day-to-day basis, but if you find you're falling significantly behind, then we need to talk again."

"That sounds okay." Starsky paused. "Exercise and fitness building, huh? First time somebody's called it that instead of therapy."

"As long as you think of it as therapy, you're going to feel like a patient. Am I right?"

"Well...yeah," Starsky admitted, smiling.

"So if you think of this as just starting out at ground zero in terms of physical fitness, doesn't that make it seem less painful?"

"I guess, now that you mention it. It sounds like something I want to do—get back in shape."

"Then that's what you need to do. Concentrate on getting in shape, building your stamina. Reinstatement is something you have to consider a long-term goal. It could take you months to get there. In the meantime, be happy with your body when it gives you some little victories."

"Do you think I'm ever gonna go on active duty again? Dr. Norman didn't think I could."

"Dr. Norman was evaluating you within a fairly rigid time structure. I think you have the physical potential to do most anything you put your mind to. I honestly don't know how long it will take you to achieve that level, because a lot of that depends on you and how badly you want it. But I've seen some amazing things come from determination. If this is something you want badly enough, fight for it. My professional opinion is that you have it within you to do it." She shook her head. "Quite honestly, you've already worked some magic with this recovery. I will level with you about one thing—given your initial injuries and blood loss, it's remarkable that you survived."

"I really thought I was all washed up, the way he was talkin'."

"There are no guarantees, David. I can't tell you for sure you'll make it if you follow my suggestions or a specific exercise regimen, but you're healthy and you have an incredible will to live and a very strong heart and respiratory system. Those are the raw materials. So get to work, and come back and see me in a month. I'll refer you to a physical therapist who will help you and Hutch design an exercise program you can use as a guideline. Sound good?"

"Yeah, sounds great. Thanks, Doc," Starsky said, barely able to believe he actually felt cheerful in a doctor's presence. "Uh...what about my car?"

"Your car?" She raised her eyebrows inquisitively.

"Dr. Norman never gave me clearance to drive, but I'm goin' stir crazy without my wheels and Hutch is back to work now so he can't drive me everywhere. When can I start driving?"

"As soon as you get home and pick up your car keys," she said, smiling.

"You mean I'm okay to drive now?"

"I think Dr. Norman was probably concerned with your upper body strength and the pain you were having—both of those concerns could hamper you in a difficult traffic situation. But if you can keep up the exercise regime you've described, you're certainly capable of driving a car." She smiled. "I've got to get you back in action. Minnie'd never let me forget it if I didn't do right by one of her referrals."

**********

The visit to Dr. Fielding was a turning point in Starsky's attitude toward his recovery. He happily attended the meeting with the physical therapist and found the discussion not nearly as defeating as previous encounters with medical personnel. The young man took copious notes on his and Hutch's observations about Starsky's strengths, weaknesses, and stumbling blocks. Within a few days, an exercise plan based on that discussion was in place.

There were things Starsky could do on his own while Hutch was at work, including taking brisk walks and working with small hand weights at home. While Hutch was officially scheduled for the eleven to seven shift, overtime began to creep back into his life as it usually did when Starsky and he were on the streets together. By the time Hutch arrived home near noon many days, he'd have barely enough time to go to the gym with Starsky, where he concentrated mostly on helping his partner rather than working out himself. Starsky had to admit to himself, albeit a bit guiltily, that his own workouts seemed easier when he wasn't watching Hutch perform at a level several notches higher. Concentrating on what he could do rather than what he couldn't do was making his progress seem easier. He was realistic enough to know, however, that it still wasn't speedy. Then again, even Dr. Fielding hadn't promised him a rose garden.

He glanced over at Hutch, who was sitting in the passenger seat of the Torino, fighting the tendency to nod off to sleep. They'd finished their stint at the gym and Starsky was busily trying to get used to the new aches and pains from the workout, so they'd ridden to his place mostly in silence.

"Stay with me, Blintz. I still can't carry you up the steps," Starsky teased.

"God, I'm wiped out," Hutch said, rubbing his eyes tiredly. "Guess I'm getting too old for twelve-hour shifts."

"I'm gonna go out and take some pictures this afternoon, so it'll be quiet at home." Starsky barely noticed his own choice of words until he thought how much more like "home" his apartment had felt since Hutch had moved in with him.

"I was thinking that if I get a couple days off this weekend—like Dobey promised—it would be a good time for me to move back into my place. You're driving now and you don't need someone with you all the time anymore. I should probably go back to my own apartment before my plants forget my name," Hutch concluded with a smile.

Starsky felt as if he'd been punched in the gut. It was unrealistic to think Hutch was going to move in with him and live there forever, and everything his partner had said was true. He was driving, taking care of his own personal needs, and was no longer on any heavy medication. There was no good reason for Hutch to stay with him.

"Yeah, I s'pose so. Probably not much to movin' back to your place except packin' up some clothes."

"Well, yeah, but I've got some stuff piled up at your place—books, records—things that migrated over there in the last few weeks."

"You can come back and get that stuff anytime—doesn't have to be all at once." Leave some reasons behind so you don't forget to come over...

"You know Dobey and his promises of free weekends. We'll probably be working anyway. Doesn't much matter these days what bed I fall into as long as I can sleep there."

"Guess I'm just another one-night stand then, huh?" Starsky teased, and Hutch laughed, albeit a bit feebly.

"Sorry, babe. I never promised to marry you just because we're sleeping together," he retorted.

"My mother warned me about men like you," Starsky countered.

"Your mother's very progressive," Hutch said, laughing, and Starsky had to join him. The silly banter felt good—natural. Driving around together in the Torino felt good—like old times. Thinking Hutch would somehow forget all that just because he reclaimed his life and his apartment and his individuality again was foolish.

Hutch made a beeline for the bedroom when they got home, taking a fast shower and then crawling into bed. Starsky took his turn in the shower next, preferring not to shower in the locker room at Vinnie's Gym. The scars were still prominent—standing out vividly against his skin—and he had no desire to show off his sliced-up body to a bunch of muscled, healthy guys in a gym shower. Donning a clean shirt and jeans, he slipped past his softly snoring partner and closed the bedroom door behind him.

His latest envelope of developed photos was sitting there on the table, so he got himself a cola and a piece of cold pizza out of the refrigerator and sat down to go through them.

Most of them were nature shots, a few were kids playing in the park, and a couple were just plain disasters—camera techniques that didn't work or that he hadn't perfected yet. Then he found the series of photos of Hutch he'd taken to use up the roll. His partner was a wonderful photo subject—he wasn't just nice-looking, but was also interesting, and intense. Catching him unawares, on film, was rare, and Starsky took the time now to really look at the expressions he'd captured. In a simple task like ironing pants, Starsky could see all the concentration, commitment and intensity he saw in so many other situations.

Sitting back in the chair, he tried to figure out why it seemed like such a painful loss to see Hutch move back to his own place. It should have been a sort of celebration, really—it was a huge milestone in Starsky's recovery. He was self-sufficient. He could drive, he could occasionally work out by himself if need be, and he didn't need a babysitter living with him anymore. Technically, he was recovered—all he was doing now was building his fitness and stamina. He'd always be grateful to Dr. Fielding for making him think of it that way.

So Hutch moving out was a good thing—it meant life was progressing toward normalcy. Starsky tried to find happiness in the thought and failed miserably. Driving the Torino had been a rush—getting back behind the wheel. For days now, he hadn't let Hutch drive anywhere they both went. Each new achievement in the gym built his confidence and made him feel more whole again. But this...losing Hutch's constant presence in his life was not a happy milestone, no matter what it meant. As it was, with Hutch and Flores working such a treacherous schedule, he barely saw Hutch for more than a few hours each day—and that was because he lived there. Their hour at the gym and a few hours before Hutch went into work at eleven—unless he had to go earlier because of a stakeout—were all they had together.

If Hutch moved back to his own place, he'd be sleeping in his own bed, obviously, grabbing a quick bite to eat before work... Hopefully they'd still go to the gym together, although at some point, Hutch was going to have to start looking after his own workouts again, so that was probably not going to last much longer either.

The days of spending seventy-five percent of their time together were in the past—before Gunther, and before Flores. Temporary or not, he was Hutch's partner for the time being, and the person with Hutch for most of his waking hours. Truth be told, neither of them had ever had a lot of time for other friends when they were working tough cases and lots of hours. Despite their choice to spend most of their off time together, their work schedules made social lives difficult at best. They dated some women, but making other male buddies wasn't especially easy, and there had never been much motivation when they had each other.

Flores was Hutch's partner now, and Starsky was...another male buddy. In that filmy category of friends neither of them had ever had much time for. Hutch wasn't about to forget him—of that much Starsky felt sure—but when he was working with someone else, fitting in his normal dating and social activities, Starsky had to wonder where in Hutch's life there was going to be room for him. He had Hutch's time by default because of their current living arrangement, but that wasn't going to last much longer.

Also in the pile of photos were the pictures the young woman in the park had taken of them at Starsky's request. Hutch was sitting there on the blanket with his guitar, Starsky sitting next to him, both of them smiling as the photo was snapped. The smiles were genuine—not the stilted, posed smiles you had to put on for a photo. Starsky had to smile back at the images. Worrying about all this was stupid. His friendship with Hutch was solid—it had taken years to build and it wasn't going to crumble for Flores or the PD or anything else. Chalking his melancholy off to a little anxiety over going solo for the first time in months, Starsky stacked up the photos and tucked them back in their envelopes.

Leaving Hutch to sleep in a silent apartment for a while, he picked up his keys and headed out to the Torino to take a drive—just because he could. With no particular place to go, he just indulged in his recently granted privilege to drive and followed a few back roads wherever they happened to take him, just for the change of scenery.

**********

Hutch packed his things Saturday morning, and by early afternoon, he'd moved back into his own apartment. He'd been back to water plants and take in the mail, but it seemed odd to be coming back here and calling this place home again. Starsky's place had begun to feel way too much like home, and sleeping in Starsky's bed—with Starsky—had become far too much of a routine. It was a collision course he had to escape before it was too late.

Stuffing underwear into a dresser drawer, he snorted a laugh in the empty apartment. It was too fucking late before it started, he amended. The way he already felt about Starsky, he'd known before he walked into that bedroom the first night that sleeping next to him for a prolonged span of time wasn't going to make things any easier.

That didn't even begin to address how guilty and ashamed he felt at how much he enjoyed Starsky's completely innocent tendency to move closer to him during the night...or at the way he liked to watch Starsky sleep, how good it felt when some part of that warm body pressed against him until he could feel the soft rise and fall of healthy respiration.

They'd always talked—a lot. But those late night talks were some of the best they'd ever had. Real heart-to-hearts, talks about important things...how they felt about all the big issues in life. He felt he knew Starsky better than he'd ever known him before—he'd gotten insights into the man's heart and soul and mind in ways he never had before. Starsky was a deeper thinker than he'd imagined, and while he'd never had the advantages of education and intellectual enrichment Hutch had enjoyed in his youth, he'd managed to amass quite an impressive array of knowledge on his own. He loved to read and he loved to learn—and Hutch had felt a certain sadness at times that such a nimble brain had been denied something better merely because there was no college money in the Starsky household and no real consideration of it as an option.

Thinking of his conversations with Flores in the car during a long shift, he began to realize that he'd engaged his temporary partner in conversations he'd never have thought to start with Starsky. Just because Flores had a couple letters after his name, Hutch had to admit to himself that he'd given him more credit for a greater intelligence and insight than he'd given Starsky.

Now that he felt even lower because of his unintentional intellectual snobbery, he went to the refrigerator and took out a beer. He looked around at the empty apartment and sighed. Well, he was home...or rather, he was at his apartment. Starsky's absence was like an ache in his heart and soul, and even the thought that they were going to meet at Huggy's for a little pool and a pizza in a couple hours didn't do much to raise his spirits. [insert 501-2.jpg]

He sat on the couch and picked up the phone, dialing Starsky's number. It was answered on the third ring.

"Miss me?" he said jokingly. Starsky laughed on the other end of the phone. Then there was a little pause.

"It's awful quiet around here," the other man admitted quietly.

"What time are we getting together at Huggy's?" Hutch resisted the urge to agree, to admit that he was miserable being back in his own place alone.

"I thought we said five."

"Yeah, right."

"Plants glad to see ya?" Starsky joked.

"Yeah, it was a real family reunion," Hutch retorted, smiling.

"Good to be home, huh?"

"Well, at least I won't have to drive across town to get my mail."

"That's somethin', I guess," Starsky said, a little smile in his voice. Something leapt in Hutch's chest to hear that Starsky seemed as blue and listless as he did.

"Guess I'll see you at five then. You want me to pick you up?"

"Nah, I'll meet you there. I got a couple errands to run anyhow, so I'll do that and then go to Huggy's."

"Okay. Well...see you at five."

"I'll be there. Bring plenty'a money so you can pay up when I whip your miserable ass."

"In your dreams."

"Your nightmares, pal," Starsky countered, chuckling. "See ya later, buddy."

"Right. Later." Hutch hung up the phone and stared at it, then stretched out on his back on the couch. Home sweet home, he thought dejectedly.

**********

Huggy's was at its usual noisy, smoky, chaotic best as Saturday night got underway. Starsky cast a glance around the bar until he spotted Hutch in one of their favorite booths, Huggy draped on the back of the empty side of it, talking up a storm. Easing his way through the crowd, Starsky coughed a couple times at the thickness of the smoke in the air. He'd been away from nightclubs and bars—and a lot of restaurants, for that matter—since before the shooting. This environment seemed to be a shock to his system, and even the music seemed too loud and began to pulsate in the back of his head like Poe's tell-tale heart.

"Well, if it ain't the man himself!" Huggy announced as Starsky approached the booth. "Lookin' good, my man," Huggy enthused, sharing a spirited high five with Starsky before he slid into the booth.

"Hey, Hug. Looks like the place is really jumpin' tonight," Starsky said. "Business good?"

"The best. Havin' that old building up the street turned into offices is great for lunch business. Looks like some'a those folks are comin' back at night." Huggy paused. "Now he looks balanced," he said, nodding toward Hutch. "Seein' him come in here alone is like seein' somebody hoppin' around on one leg."

"What about Flores?" Starsky asked, pouring himself a beer from the pitcher Hutch had ordered. He hoped his question sounded casual.

"He's a good guy, but he ain't the real McCoy, if you catch my meanin'," Huggy retorted. "I better go move things along at the bar." Huggy stopped before getting too far from the table. "By the way, there are a couple of lovely ladies up at the bar who are interested in makin' your acquaintance." Huggy smiled a little lasciviously and headed toward the bar area.

"See ya, Huggy," Starsky said, then turned to Hutch. "You wanna go lay claim to the pool table before somebody else camps out there?"

"What was that all about?"

"What?"

"Asking about Flores?"

"I just thought it was kinda funny that Huggy wasn't even takin' Flores into account, talkin' about you bein' balanced again. That's all."

"Yeah, well, that's a temporary setup." Hutch frowned as Starsky coughed again. "You okay?"

"Fine. Just gettin' used to bein' out with a crowd again."

"Pretty smoky in here—a little stuffy, too."

"Par for the course for Saturday night. Let's go shoot some pool, huh?" Starsky did his best to get out of the booth the same way he always had, despite the fact he felt a pull on his incision.

"You want to go talk to the girls?" Hutch asked, and he sounded a little hopeful. Starsky wasn't really feeling up to putting on a show for a pretty lady, but sentencing Hutch to spending Saturday night on a date with him when there were two pretty women at the bar giving them the eye was cruel and unusual punishment.

"Sure, why not?" Starsky responded, feigning enthusiasm.

There was a redhead and a brunette, the redhead a little more petite than her taller companion. Both girls were dressed in tight jeans and slide shoes with heels that Starsky thought looked painful and a little dangerous.

"You ladies don't happen to play pool, do you?" Hutch asked, putting on his best smile.

"No, but we like to watch," the brunette replied, smiling. "I'm Sharon and this is my friend, Susan."

"I'm Ken Hutchinson, this is my partner, Dave Starsky."

"Partner?" Susan, the redhead, asked, raising her eyebrows a bit.

"We're cops," Hutch said, still smiling.

Next'll come the routine about the dangerous undercover assignments, Starsky thought, resisting the urge to roll his eyes. Incredible thing was, it generally worked like a charm.

"Oh really?" Sharon responded, obviously not instantly impressed by that occupation.

"Well, we're not in uniform anymore—we're detectives. Mostly undercover work."

Smooth, Hutch. Of course, you're neglecting to mention that your partner is a has-been who feels like his head is gonna explode from a few minutes'a smoke and loud music.

"So which one of you's the better pool shooter?" Susan asked, smiling coyly.

"He thinks he is," Starsky spoke up, realizing he'd given the impression of being a deaf mute since they'd approached the girls.

"Well, then I think I'll put my money on you," Susan said, linking her arm through Starsky's.

"There's nothing wrong with a little confidence," Sharon defended, appropriating Hutch for herself. "If you've got it, flaunt it, right, Ken?"

"My sentiments exactly," Hutch responded, leading their trek to the pool table.

Starsky's headache got worse as the crowd got denser, the smoke thicker and the music louder. His game of pool was reasonably pathetic due to lack of practice, and the pounding in his head coupled with a rising nausea made the effort to improve more than he was capable of at the moment. Susan was a nice girl, a good sport who seemed to be having fun despite the fact she'd picked the obvious loser. Wonder how good a sport she'll be back at my place when I take off my shirt and do my Frankenstein impersonation...of course, his scars weren't as scary...

"Sorry, Starsk. Looks like I won't be needing that cash to make any payoffs tonight," Hutch joked, though his tone was a little flat. Great...feels so fucking sorry for the doddering invalid that he can't even enjoy rubbing my nose in a lost game of pool.

"Your food's up!" Huggy announced as he moved past them to deliver meals to another table.

"Guess we might as well go sit down," Hutch said. "Looks like dinner's on you tonight, pal," he teased. "I remember something about ‘whipping my sorry ass'?" he needled again, obviously intent on getting some rejoinder from Starsky. He finally complied.

"I'm just buildin' a false sense'a confidence before I let ya have it right between the eyes." Starsky was grateful to sit in the booth until the large pizza was set on the table.

"Ooh, that looks wonderful! I've never had the pizza here," Sharon enthused as Hutch began doing the honors of serving it.

"Huggy just added it to the menu a few months ago. It's great," Hutch said. After serving the two girls, he set a plate in front of Starsky, who stared at it in a sort of mute agony for a moment. His stomach did a flip, and he put a hand over his mouth.

"I'm gonna be sick," he croaked before scrambling out of the booth and heading for the men's room.

Expelling the meager contents of his stomach made his head pound until he thought he'd pass out and die with his head in the john. Fortunately, Hutch was, as always, only a couple steps behind him, and he took charge of moving Starsky back up on his feet and keeping his head out of the toilet.

"You're burning up, buddy," Hutch said worriedly, laying a hand on Starsky's forehead.

"I feel really sick," Starsky admitted in a hushed voice. The guy who was using the facilities gave them an odd but cursory glance before washing his hands and leaving.

"The doctor said your immunity would be low for a while. You probably picked up a bug somewhere. Come on, I'll take you home."

"What about the girls? Why don't you just go out there and enjoy yourself and I'll go home and stick my head in the john until I feel better."

"The girls have a free pizza and a pitcher of beer. I'll give them our apologies and then we'll go home." Hutch paused. "I'll even get their phone numbers—okay?"

"Yeah, okay, whatever," Starsky muttered miserably, genuinely not caring at that moment if he ever laid eyes on a woman again. Or a pizza. Or beer. Or anything that required any sort of physical effort or digestive processing.

Starsky spent the ride home slumped low in the passenger seat of the Torino, trying to resist the urge to throw up again from the motion of the car. He closed his eyes as he thought of what a dismal failure his first attempt at normality had been. Hutch had looked more cheerful and upbeat in that brief time than he had in weeks. They were enjoying something normal together that they'd enjoyed numerous times during the past several years.

And then the basket case was barfing in the john and barely able to stand up. Typical. For a few moments, he'd almost thought he was normal again. It should have come as no surprise that he wasn't.

Hutch guided him up to the front door and inside, then steered him to the bedroom. Starsky didn't resist having help with getting undressed and into bed. He felt too weak to stand and he was having chills.

"There's a bad flu going around right now," Hutch said, going into the bathroom and returning with a cool compress, which he put on Starsky's forehead. "You probably picked it up at the gym or someplace else we've been."

"Gee, you made it a whole afternoon at your place before the invalid fell apart," Starsky said derisively.

"Hey, don't do that. This has nothing to do with you being an invalid. From what I hear, this bug has been flattening people right out in bed for a couple days. You might have caught this even if you weren't recovering."

"Sorry I messed up our evening. Maybe if you go back you could still hook up with the girls."

"Starsk, will you quit worrying about the girls and my evening? They aren't the last girls and this isn't the last evening on earth." Hutch went back into the bathroom and reappeared with a thermometer, which he stuck in Starsky's mouth. "Just take it easy, buddy. This is going around. Everybody I know of who had it, lived," he added, smiling a little as he sat on the edge of the bed.

"I'll be okay if you wanna go back out," Starsky managed around the thermometer.

"Shh," Hutch admonished gently. "Keep your mouth closed. I know what a challenge that is for you," he added, and Starsky shot him a venomous look, knowing it was the response Hutch expected. The other man smiled.

"What is it?" Starsky asked as Hutch read the bad news.

"A little over 101." Hutch sat there a moment. "Simmons had this a couple weeks ago, and he said it was viral—that the doctor couldn't prescribe anything for it even when he went in to get looked at. I could call Dr. Fielding—"

"It's just the flu, Hutch. Just let me die in peace," Starsky said, rolling onto his side and curling up. "I'm gonna be sick again," he managed, shoving at Hutch to get out of the way while he staggered to the bathroom.

**********

Hutch dropped into a chair in the living room, leaning his head back. It was almost dawn and it had been a long, grotesque night. Starsky was sicker than he'd been since Bellamy's poisoning. His normally resilient partner threw off germs with surprising immunity most of the time. Adjusting to the idea that Starsky wasn't as strong as he used to be was still difficult. Maybe hiding behind the idea that Starsky was a "work in progress" and simply assuming his immunity would build, along with his strength, stamina and endurance, was wishful thinking. Still, assuming anything else was writing Starsky off as disabled, and it was the very thing Hutch had resented Dr. Norman for doing. He only hoped that Dr. Fielding wasn't leading Starsky down a primrose path that would only hurt him more in the long run.

The phone rang and Hutch pounced on it, hoping it wouldn't disturb the sleep which had finally overtaken Starsky. After two more violent seizures of essentially dry heaves and healthy doses of Tylenol, he'd finally passed out into a reasonably sound sleep.

"Hello?" Hutch's voice was a bit low since the bedroom door was ajar. He wanted to be sure to hear Starsky if he called out or needed anything, so now he had to be careful not to wake him.

"Thought I might find you over there," Dobey's voice came over the line. "We've got a break in the Hanson case. I need you and Flores in here ASAP."

"Uh, Captain...I'm with Starsky because he's sick, and I don't—"

"Go ahead, Hutch. I'm okay," Starsky's voice startled him from the bedroom doorway, where he was leaning. He was a sickly grayish white, his eyes bloodshot, and he was shivering in his robe. "I'm just gonna sleep, take Tylenol and puke once in a while. I can do that by myself."

"Hutch?" Dobey's sharp-toned question got his attention again.

"Just a second, Captain." He covered the mouthpiece. "I'm not going anywhere."

"Yes, you are. Look, Hutch, I feel like shit and all I wanna do is lie in there and feel lousy. You don't need to sit here and watch me do that. Go on. I'll be okay, and I'll call ya if I'm not, okay?"

"Promise you'll call?"

"Scout's honor. Now get movin' before I throw up on you." Starsky managed a feeble grin before shuffling back toward the bed.

"I'll be right there," Hutch said into the phone.

"What's wrong with Starsky?" Dobey's voice sounded a bit friendlier now, and definitely concerned.

"I think it's that flu that's going around. The doctor warned us his immunity would be low for a while until he got his strength back. Probably picked it up at the gym or something."

"Tell him to get lots of rest and take it easy."

"I will. Thanks, Captain." Hutch hung up the phone and grabbed his jacket. He stepped back into the bedroom, then walked over to the bed.

"Go on, buddy. I'm okay," Starsky said, waving a hand in a weak, dismissive gesture.

"Okay. Dobey said rest and take it easy—so now it's an order," Hutch added, smiling. It broke his heart to walk out on Starsky when he was so ill, but truthfully, there was very little he could do to help. As bad as Starsky felt, maybe a few hours alone to sleep it off and not be disturbed wouldn't be a bad thing. "Call me if you need me." On an impulse, Hutch reached down and stroked Starsky's hair once, gently.

"Be careful," Starsky responded tiredly.

"Always."

With that, Hutch forced himself to turn away and head out the door. It was going to be a long shift.

**********

Starsky looked at his reflection in the bathroom mirror and winced. He still felt like someone had dribbled his stomach down a basketball court, but the pounding in his head had subsided a bit. The man who looked back at him had bloodshot eyes and a pasty complexion. The zombies in "Night of the Living Dead" had a healthier glow about them than he did.

He made the effort to brush his teeth, hoping to dispel the birdcage-like taste in his mouth. The toothpaste itself nauseated him, but he managed a quick brush job. After rinsing out his mouth, he turned on the shower, planning to at least prevent himself from stinking too much. It was bad enough he'd ruined the first normal evening he and Hutch had tried to spend together in the last several weeks. He didn't need the further indignity of smelling like the inside of a dirty toilet.

Managing to get showered and dried off, he felt drained from the effort, and though he was weak from having nothing in his system, he knew better than to crawl out to the kitchen. The sight of food was enough to make him throw up if he'd had any ammunition left. So he settled for curling up on the couch with a pillow and the throw, staring blindly at the television. Sunday afternoon offered a plethora of sports, but all of that seemed too chaotic, so he chose a movie instead. Something quiet and low-key that wouldn't prevent him from slipping back to sleep.

Unfortunately, he found himself drawn into the story, watching the trials and tribulations of Ryan O'Neal and Ali McGraw as they portrayed the two ill-fated lovers in "Love Story". He'd promised himself he wouldn't watch this film again. After Terry's death, he'd happened to catch it on TV one night, and it had dredged up all his own grief until he'd spent most of the night in sporadic fits of tears.

Today, though, he found himself watching the death scene with a sort of detached interest, almost more interested in watching Ryan O'Neal's character wandering around, alone and desolate.

If the love of his life had been given back to him as a somewhat problematic invalid, would he have wanted her? If she was no longer whole and vibrant and pretty, but was still there, alive...would the man in the movie have been happier than he was walking around alone in the wake of her death?

He shifted on his back and ignored his stomach's protest at the movement. He thought back to Terry. If she'd become disabled because of the shooting but had still been alive and still loved him, he'd have married her in a heartbeat. Her disability wouldn't have changed his love for her, nor would it have ever made her ugly in his eyes. He supposed that if the two lovers in the film shared the kind of love that inspired soaring love ballads, the kind he'd shared with Terry, it wouldn't have changed their feelings either.

Why did he think less of Hutch? Why did he keep assuming that his weaknesses made him ugly in Hutch's eyes? That his scars even mattered in their relationship? That Hutch didn't love him enough to just rejoice in the fact he was alive?

Maybe because he wasn't Hutch's wife, girlfriend or lover. He was supposed to be his equal—his partner. Not someone Hutch took care of and doted on. That was nice when he was sick, and he'd always appreciated—and savored, truth be told—Hutch's mother-henning. The gentle, affectionate care always restored him faster than any medicine on earth, and he couldn't even count the number of times he'd reached for Hutch and one of those strong, warm hands was always right there.

"I reach for her hand, it's always there..." The words of the movie's love theme coincided eerily with his thoughts. He realized the credits were rolling, and whatever peace the bereft man in the film was going to find, he was going to find it off-camera. He rolled over to face the back of the couch, ignoring the commercials that were running now.

Their partnership was such a huge part of their relationship—their magnificent unspoken communication that made them the best possible back-up for each other. The way they could move in tandem to make a bust, or just get through a spray of gunfire alive—that was so much an intrinsic part of what bound them together. For other people, the romantic and sexual component of their relationship would seal them together. For them, it was that incredible symbiotic working relationship that fed their personal friendship. That made them inseparable.

Those hours that comprise seventy-five percent of your life, as Hutch had once speculated, those waking hours when you work and grab a bite to eat...the time you spend with your partner. Okay, so maybe it was more like sixty percent when you didn't choose to spend all your waking time with the other guy, but still...

What did Starsky still have left to offer Hutch but memories of how things used to be? If he couldn't be what he was before, then what would he be? A disabled wife or lover was one thing—a disabled former partner was something else. And Starsky winced at the painful realization of what that was—excess baggage.

Hutch had a partner now who was physically fit and agile, who was intellectually his match, and who had a damn good record behind him. They were working long hours and busting bad guys. In the last few weeks, they'd built a pretty decent reputation in the department. Unlike all the people at the precinct who seemed to have relegated him to the backs of their minds during his lengthy absence, Minnie sent him a different funny card once a week—and she could never resist writing a little water cooler gossip on it.

Her last tidbit had been that everyone was shocked that Hutch was actually accepting this new partner of his and hadn't snapped his head off yet, and that Starsky should be proud to know that Hutch was being a good boy and racking up some significant collars with this new guy—really showing him the ropes. Minnie had meant to reassure him that Hutch was in good hands and was coping well. Instead, she'd confirmed what he'd feared most from the outset—Flores was his replacement. Not a sub. Dobey had hand-picked possibly the only cop Hutch would have accepted and slipped him into Hutch's life under the guise of being a temp.

Hutchinson and Flores were a good team. He'd always heard it said that if you loved something, you should let it go. Starsky blamed his flu for the tears that thought brought to his eyes. He wondered if Flores was a good pool player.

**********

Hutch let himself in Starsky's apartment, scanning the living room. He noticed his partner huddled on the couch, snoring softly. It was almost nine o'clock Sunday night, but at least Dobey had given them the next day off. The Hanson bust had been a big one—Milo Hanson was one of the area's most powerful drug dealers, and now he was behind bars. The bust was thanks to, in large part, Flores' stellar work with a jittery young informant. He had established a rapport with the youth, and it had been that contact that led them to the arrest—one Hutch and Starsky had been working on before all hell broke loose with the shooting.

He looked over the back of the couch at his partner's sleeping form. Starsky was curled up in a fetal position, probably due to the cramps in his stomach, and he was still pale. His lashes almost looked moist, but Hutch couldn't tell that for sure. He ventured to rest the backs of his fingers lightly on Starsky's cheek, and while there was still a trace of fever there, it wasn't nearly as warm as before.

"Hush..." It was a sleeping mumble of his name. Hutch smiled, moving his hand to stroke Starsky's hair lightly.

"Go back to sleep, babe. I'm right here."

"Gonna...miss you..." he mumbled in his sleep, his face contorting a moment as if in pain, then smoothing out again in the peace of sleep.

Hutch withdrew his hand, a little troubled by the odd mutterings. Dismissing it as the ramblings of a slightly fevered mind, and maybe attributable to Starsky really being a little lonely by himself when he was so sick, Hutch went into the bathroom and took his shower. When he came out, Starsky was sitting up on the couch, staring at the television a little blankly, as if he wasn't sure where he was or what time it was.

"You must've had a pretty good nap there, buddy," Hutch said, still toweling off his hair as he sat on the couch. "Feeling better?"

"A little. Still don't think I could keep anything down."

"You want to try?"

"No. I'm pretty sore from all that puking earlier. I don't wanna try it again. My head just got a little better, so I'm not gonna rile it up again."

"Probably a good idea. Hey—we busted Hanson tonight." Hutch was delighted to be able to bring his partner a little good news for a change, but was a bit deflated by the reaction. Starsky just looked at him, and there was an infinite...sadness in his eyes.

"That's great, Hutch," he said finally. "He was bad news." He pushed himself up off the couch and shuffled toward the bedroom. "I'm goin' to the john and then turning in. You don't haveta stay if you wanna go home. I'll be okay."

"Would you rather I went back to my place?"

Starsky paused in the bedroom doorway, then looked back at Hutch. That awful melancholy was there again, and Hutch didn't have the faintest idea how to dispel it.

"No. It's good...having you here." He looked away a little uneasily and then disappeared into the bedroom.

Hutch got up himself then, turned off the TV and the lights, and went into the bedroom. When Starsky came out of the bathroom, Hutch moved forward and pulled him into a hug.

"What's this for?" Starsky mumbled against his shoulder, but clung tightly nonetheless.

"Oh, I don't know." Hutch backed away, a little embarrassed. "You just seemed kind of down when I got home. I'm sorry I took off for so long."

"I was okay here. Just puked and slept a lot. Nothing special."

"Get in, buddy." Hutch pulled the covers back and waited until Starsky tossed his robe aside and slid into the bed. He pulled the covers up and turned out the light, going around to his side of the bed. Climbing in, he turned over and stared at Starsky's back. "What's wrong, Starsk?" he asked softly.

"I just don't feel good. That's all," Starsky responded. "'Night, Hutch."

"Sleep tight, buddy. Holler if you need me." Hutch paused. "I've got tomorrow off, so I'll be around."

"Okay," Starsky said a little flatly before falling silent.

I love you so much, babe. I'd give everything I had to take you in my arms and kiss away whatever's hurting you like this. Or just to hold you close and let you drift off to sleep in my arms, where I know you wouldn't feel so blue and miserable. You're my world, Starsk... don't shut me out, babe, Hutch pleaded silently with the sleeping man.

**********

Starsky's one month check-up with the doctor Dr. Fielding yielded some positive results, for the first time in a long time. Though the flu had sidelined him for a few days, his weight was still up a bit more, his vital signs were stronger and healthier, and he had fewer complaints of pain than he'd had the first time he'd seen Dr. Fielding0–or perhaps the pain was still there, but he'd come to view it as normal pain from getting back in shape rather than the pain of a shattered, disabled body.

Despite the good results, the patient's subdued demeanor was not lost on the doctor as she made the final notes on his chart.

"You got a good report card, David. You seem a little less than excited," she said, closing the folder. "Something bothering you?" she asked directly.

"I don't think I'm gonna make it. I know I'm doin' better, but I don't think I can do it. It's just been...hard getting used to the idea."

"Why do you feel that way? Your results are all excellent, and you're building up your stamina and endurance—frankly to levels beyond what I thought you'd accomplish by now."

"I'm so far behind. I can't keep up with guys who are...normal. I guess I'm just facin' some hard facts."

"Why don't you get dressed, David, and we'll talk in my office?"

"What else is there to talk about? Are you gonna recommend me for desk duty? I know that's comin' next."

"Just get dressed and come down the hall to my office." She smiled reassuringly and walked out of the room. Puzzled, Starsky followed the directions, and when he was dressed again, found the doctor sitting behind her desk. "Close the door." He did, and sat down.

"What's this about, Doc?"

"That's what I want you to tell me. Last time we talked, you were capable of a lot less, but you were a lot more determined. It's like something just...sucked all the life out of you since our last appointment."

"The only part I play in Hutch's life anymore is...some sort of... responsibility he has. He's working with a new partner—and he's really a good guy. He'd be a good guy for Hutch to be partnered with on a permanent basis, and...Hutch likes him, and I think...I need to back off so Hutch can get assigned with him instead'a losin' out because he's waitin' for me. You said yourself there were no guarantees I'd ever be back on active duty again."

"I said I couldn't promise you anything, and that's true." She leaned on her desk, her fingers twined together as they rested on a scattered array of papers. "David, if logic or likelihood had prevailed in this case, you wouldn't be sitting there. You should have never survived the initial shooting, and if you did, by some miracle, you should have never made it through surgery, and certainly, you shouldn't be the healthy, physically fit man you are now. But you are. You've defied the odds every step of the way. I don't tell you this to make you feel uneasy—I want you to know it because I want you to realize that you are capable of moving mountains with that determination of yours. I also know how tired you can get fighting the odds so hard," she added, and Starsky found it strangely difficult to swallow the lump in his throat. He was so damned tired, and so tired of living every day in fear of what he couldn't achieve, and of how many days were ticking by.

"What are you sayin' exactly?" he managed, clearing his throat.

"I'm saying that we all have limitations, but we can raise those limitations, and you keep doing that. No one who has made the kind of recovery you have should close any doors. You might very well continue your pattern and do the allegedly impossible and end up back on active duty. I just feel badly seeing something drain the fighting spirit out of you."

"I gotta be realistic."

"Being realistic is not a good idea. Not yet. Keep shooting for the top, David. Keep fighting. If you stopped right now, you could hold down a less physically-demanding job, have a family if you like, lead a very active, productive life. I think you're capable of more than that."

"Why aren't you putting me on desk duty?"

"That's what the department wants, I realize that. My clearance to put you to work again."

"Am I too weak to do that?"

"Not at all. I have a few reasons. First off, you know from unpleasant experience that your immunity is still lower that normal. You're a bit of a sitting duck for colds and flus that are going around, and I'd rather not put you in a high public contact job for another few weeks while you build up your immunity and your strength a bit more. Getting a head cold or the flu rarely kills a person, but each one of those incidents is a setback in your workout schedule. Furthermore, I know from what Minnie's told me that even the paperwork jobs there can end up being stressful and entailing overtime. You getting your full eight hours every night and keeping your stress at a reasonable level is important to your overall total recovery. And one final concern is that if you're right there, on the scene, you might be tempted to get involved in something you're not ready for, and that would be unfortunate."

"I know enough not to do something like that."

"I know you wouldn't plan it, but things happen sometimes, and you're not a spectator," she chided, smiling. Starsky had to smile back. "If you really want to go back on desk duty, I'll give you the clearance. Personally, I'd like to hold off until your next check-up. I'm protective of you, David. You're an extraordinary young man, and while I don't suggest turning you into the boy in the plastic bubble, I want to guard that recovery. I think you can accomplish more, if we're all willing to invest a bit more time and patience into the project—and that includes you. None of this works without your fight."

"Guess if you've got that kinda faith in me, maybe I oughtta keep pluggin' away, huh?"

"You and I know that this might not end the way either of us would like—with you achieving your ultimate goal. But we can know for sure it won't if you give up now. You and your body are a remarkable case—just hold on a little longer, and aim a little higher and see what happens, okay?"

"Okay. I hope you don't charge shrink fees for these sessions, or I'm gonna go broke," he said, smiling. Somehow, Dr. Fielding had an uncanny knack of making him feel like he could do anything...and making him feel better about what often seemed like a desperate, miserable situation.

"I only charge penalty fees to quitters."

"Nothin' like a little blackmail to get me back into the gym," Starsky said, laughing as he stood. She rose also and pulled a lollipop out of the mug full of them on her desk and handed it to him.

"Since you're being such a good boy about all this."

"Cherry's my favorite, too," he joked back, looking at the cellophane-wrapped red candy.

"Stop by the desk and Jenny will make your appointment for next month. If you need anything in the meantime, we'll work you in for another visit, okay?"

"Thanks, Doc." Starsky left the office with a little spring in his step.

As soon as he arrived home from his doctor's appointment, which Hutch had been unable to accompany him on because he was tied up on a case, Starsky hurried up the steps and let himself in his front door. He stood just inside the entrance a moment and then looked behind him.

And laughed out loud, letting out a boisterous cheer that echoed on the quiet street.

He'd hurried up his steps like he used to, and while he was a little more out of breath than he used to be, he felt...fine. This was a cause for celebration, and he figured heading down to the station to pick Hutch up for lunch would be a good way to do it. He turned around and closed the door behind him, heading back down the steps and jumping into the Torino, feeling more energized than he had in days—since he'd reached the dismal conclusion that his partnership with Hutch was over. If a qualified medical professional was urging him on this hard, then maybe he shouldn't give up so easily. Fighting was hard, but anything worth having, was worth fighting to save.

He found a parking spot and did his best to ignore the fact that he wasn't all that far away from the spot where he'd almost died. Today was too good of a day to think about that, even if he was fighting a powerful, dark sense of deja vu as he cut the engine and got out of the car. He planned to find Hutch, take him out for lunch, and then drive him home. He figured Hutch could leave his car here, and Starsky could drive him to work that night—or his temporary partner could pick him up. He tossed his keys up and caught them again, stuffing them in his pocket as he swaggered through the entrance door and poked the elevator button.

"Starsky?" A startled female voice made him turn around. Lizzie Thorpe was standing a few feet away in the hall. She strode over to where he stood and hugged him quickly. "Oh, my God, you look great!"

"Thanks, Lizzie. I'm feeling a lot better."

"So, is this an official visit?"

"Nah, just here to pick Hutch up for lunch. I'm not quite ready to pass inspection yet. Hey, congratulations. I hear you got promoted."

"Finally getting out of decoy work. I was about fed up with playing hookers and dance club bimbos." She shook her head. "You're going to be coming back on active duty?" she asked, looking hopeful.

"I hope to. It'll be a while yet. But I'm workin' on it."

"That's such great news. Did Hutch know you were coming down?"

"No—why?"

"I think he just left with Flores—they were heading for the gym."

"The gym?" Starsky asked, confused.

"Yeah, they usually go down there and work out after their shift." She checked her watch, apparently oblivious to the bomb she'd just dropped. "Oh, geez, I better get a move on. I'm supposed to go to a luncheon at my daughter's school and give a little talk about being a policewoman." She chuckled. "Enlightening fifth graders on the joys of law enforcement. Should be interesting."

"Yeah," Starsky responded distractedly. Then, realizing how disinterested he sounded, he quickly added, "How's Lori doing, anyway?"

"Great! She's talking about following in Mom's footsteps, but I don't know how I feel about that," she said, shaking her head. "I'd rather she was something nice and safe like a teacher or a nurse. So much for women's lib, huh?"

"Different when it's your own little girl," Starsky agreed, smiling.

"Very. Okay, I gotta run. Don't be a stranger."

"Oh, you'll be seein' more of me from now on."

After she left, Starsky stood there a moment and considered what to do next. He could go down to the gym and meet Flores and ignore the feeling swelling inside of him that he'd been betrayed. He could go home and not mention having been here, but Hutch would hear about it from Lizzie. He finally settled for going back out to the parking lot and sitting in the car. He'd see Hutch when he came out of the building, and he could pull up to the door and surprise him.

Yeah, he'll be surprised all right. Not half as surprised as I was.

While he waited in the driver's seat of the Torino, Starsky worked at analyzing what he was really angry about. Hutch was going to the gym with him every day, concentrating on his exercise regimen. He had been doing better lately, and Hutch couldn't possibly maintain his own level of fitness by standing around watching Starsky struggle with a barbell.

Why the secrecy? The overtime was a fact—Hutch wasn't getting off duty at seven in the morning like he had the first couple weeks back to work, but he was obviously making time to work out with Flores.

Back to Flores. Letting out a long sigh, Starsky had to admit, if only to himself, that it was Flores that bothered him most. He knew now how people felt when they found out a spouse was "stepping out" on them. Hutch was spending time with his temporary partner that wasn't mandated by the department, and he was keeping it a secret. A temporary partner whom even Hutch had accepted with fairly little fuss. A temporary partner who was another bi-lingual college graduate. A partner who could work out with Hutch, not put him in the role of a physical therapist.

A partner who was healthy and whole.

A partner Hutch liked.

Scolding himself for behaving like a jealous lover instead of a friend, he got back out of the car and headed into the building. Maybe instead of acting like a chapped ass, pouting in the car, he could go meet this guy and accept that Hutch needed a little recreational interaction with someone he didn't have to nursemaid once in a while. [insert 501-3.jpg]

When he approached the double doors that led into the gym, he paused a moment, then pushed them open quietly. There were a number of cops working out on the equipment there—many of them guys from the Academy. In the boxing ring, two men were wrestling.

"C'mon, old man, that your best shot?" the dark-haired man needled. He was a nice-looking Hispanic in his early thirties... Flores. He was obviously teasing and goading his slightly taller blond partner, who was only five years older than he was.

"I'll show you ‘old man'," Hutch shot back, laughing as he got up from where Flores had just somewhat unceremoniously dumped him. Then they were wrestling again, their strength and wrestling skill obviously well-matched, as neither man had an easy time getting the upper hand.

Hutch was laughing and moving about enthusiastically, looking more alive than Starsky had seen him look in ages... Hutch was having fun, roughhousing around with another obviously-trained wrestler; a healthy, whole man who could challenge him both physically and intellectually.

Hutch was working out with his partner.

Starsky doubted anyone in the gym even heard the doors open and close again, or noticed that the guy watching from the sidelines was gone.

**********

Hutch walked in the door of his apartment a little past 12:30, surprised Starsky wasn't hovering around either outside in the Torino or helping himself to something in the refrigerator. Though he'd been a little discouraged during and after his bout with the flu, he was still working hard at the gym, and usually was ready and raring to go when Hutch got home from work.

He'd spent a little more time than usual with Flores at the gym, and his muscles were protesting it a bit now. He was a bit concerned that he wouldn't be able to put on much of a show when he went with Starsky, but then, these trips to the gym weren't about Hutch. He spent his time concentrating on his partner's progress, and Starsky himself seemed just barely able to do his own exercises, let alone monitor Hutch's.

Figuring Starsky was just running a little late, Hutch poured himself a glass of orange juice and sat down to sort his mail. A letter from his Aunt Charlotte occupied a few minutes of his time, as did an offer from a credit card company that sounded fairly good. He checked his watch again at 1:15, frowning. It wasn't like Starsky to be this late for their trip to the gym. He knew Hutch had a limited time to do what he had to do and get some sleep before going back in to work. Concerned, he picked up the phone and dialed Starsky's number. When there was no answer, he grabbed his jacket and keys and headed back out the door.

**********

The lunch crowd had dwindled to a few lingerers by the time Starsky approached the bar at The Pits. The proprietor himself was tallying up lunch receipts at the end stool.

"Hey, Hug," Starsky greeted a bit flatly.

"Starsky, my man. You're lookin' a far sight better'n you did last time I saw you," Huggy said cheerfully, referring to the ill-fated evening out at the beginning of Starsky's bout with the flu.

"Yeah, well, it wouldn't take much," Starsky responded. "Hey, Anita, can I get a beer?" The woman behind the bar looked at him with a raised eyebrow.

"I don't know, honey, can you?" Despite his dark mood, Starsky had to smile a little. The day he couldn't spar with Anita was the day he really was ready for the rest home.

"I probably could in a joint with a decent bartender," he shot back, waiting for the retort. He wasn't disappointed.

"A joint with a decent bartender wouldn't let you in," she responded, pouring his beer and setting it in front of him. "Where's your good-lookin' partner, anyway?"

"At work. I'm still not back on duty."

"Real soon though, right?" she asked, genuinely concerned.

"I don't know yet. Depends on my next doctor's appointment in a month or so."

"You'll do it. You're too stubborn and arrogant not to do it," she concluded, smiling and patting his arm where it rested on the bar before responding to the call of another customer.

"You come here just to enjoy the ambience of my fine establishment?" Huggy joked.

"I need to go away for a while. By myself," Starsky added. "I don't have a lot of money. I'd go to a hotel or rent a place, but disability pay isn't full pay, and...I'm pretty broke right now just makin' ends meet." Starsky paused. "I figured maybe you knew someplace I could go to...get away."

"Get away from what? Hutch?"

"Everything. I need some time alone, and I need to go someplace...that isn't familiar."

"Someplace Hutch can't find you? I don't know as I know of a place like that." Huggy chortled a little. "I'll see what I can do."

"Thanks, Hug."

"You mean now, huh?" he asked when it became clear Starsky wasn't moving off the barstool.

"My stuff's in a rental car out back. That's the other reason I need a free place to stay—I'm payin' all my money out for the car."

"You really wanna disappear, don't ya?"

"I need to. I'll be back when I've got my head together."

"It's been nice knowin' you, man," Huggy quipped, and Starsky managed a smile before the other man left the main part of the restaurant to go into the office and make a few calls.

**********

Hutch felt his heart rate pick up a bit when he saw Starsky's car was parked out front, as usual. Realizing his partner could have just arrived home from some errand and was just running late, Hutch did his best not to panic until he'd knocked sharply on the door a few times—and gotten no response. Using his key, he unlocked it and went inside.

The drapes were drawn, everything was deathly still. He felt a shiver dance up and down his spine as he pulled out his gun, scanning the apartment for any signs of an intruder or a struggle.

"Starsky!" he called out and waited. He'd hoped maybe Starsky just didn't feel well and had opted to take a nap, or was in the bathroom and didn't hear him come in. "Starsk?" This was a quieter call, with a bit of desperation to it.

Moving away from the door, he opened the drapes to brighten up the room. Nothing was out of place, and there was no sign of a struggle. He burst through the partially closed bedroom door, ready for a confrontation...but that room, too, was empty, the bed neatly made. Feeling like this was too similar to the last suicide scene he'd visited, Hutch stealthily made his way to the bathroom and pushed open the door, bracing himself for something terrible. It was almost pristine in its cleanliness, and there was certainly no sign of Starsky or any foul play.

"Starsky, where the hell are you?" Hutch asked the empty bedroom as he wandered over and sat on the bed. He briefly questioned why he would even think of Starsky and suicide in the same breath, and then he thought about Starsky's more subdued demeanor. Since his bout with the flu, he'd recovered, gone back to his workouts and done quite well in the gym. But it was with a certain lack of spirit that bothered Hutch. As if he had no happiness left in his soul. The Starsky that used to practically vibrate with enthusiasm had ceased to exist. He never talked about going back to work anymore.

And it had all happened with that damn flu—which, though unpleasant, was a temporary setback at worst. What had transformed it into a pivotal emotional turning point Hutch wasn't sure—and Starsky wasn't talking. He insisted nothing was wrong and changed the subject whenever Hutch alluded to his change in attitude.

Pushing up off the bed, Hutch wandered into the living room. He paused when he noticed a white business envelope on the desk, sitting up against the pot of a small plant. His name was written on it in Starsky's handwriting. He opened it and unfolded the sheet of white paper inside:

Dear Hutch,

Don't worry about me—I'm okay. I just needed to get away for a couple of days, on my own. I'm going through a lot of changes right now, which is no big news bulletin to you. I need to sort some things out on my own...figure out where I'm headed.

You and Flores make a great team. I can't believe I'm saying this, but you're real lucky to have gotten assigned with a good cop, and somebody you like. You better quit treating him like a temp and put your bid in with Dobey to make the partnership permanent, so you don't end up losing out. He's got a great track record, and if somebody besides me is going to watch your back, I want it to be somebody good.

I'm not going back to the department. I'm going to keep working out in the gym—maybe mainly because I don't want to get Dr. Fielding ticked off at me. Seriously, I want to get back into the best shape I can—for me. So I can have a healthy life. She did make me see that as a goal that was worthwhile all by itself.

Don't worry—this isn't some big dramatic farewell. I'll probably only be gone a few days, a week at the most, and then I'll be back and we can talk. But I wanted you to know where I stood.

I want what's best for you, buddy. Flores is a good guy, and he can go the distance. He's your equal on the streets, Hutch. That's what you need. Plus, you need another know-it-all college boy to give you a run for your money.

See you in a few days. Love ya, buddy.

Starsk

Hutch sat on the couch and skimmed the letter again. God, no, Starsk...Flores isn't what I need. I had to go back to work, without you, and that was the hardest thing—next to seeing you shot—I ever had to do. I had no choices. We needed the money. In case you were out on disability longer than you thought, or permanently, one of us had to be working.

That'd make you feel great. Me planning how to take care of you, like you're an invalid. But that's not how it feels. It feels like ...like you're my family, like I want to take care of you because I love you, not because you can't take care of yourself.

Hutch got up again and started pacing. Damn it, Starsky, if you knew what I felt for you...what I wanted with you...you probably never would come back... Or would you? Could you feel what I feel? Did you ever let yourself think about what it could be like if all the intensity of what we feel for each other was physical? If we could make it forever? If it was something that had nothing to do with the job?

Hutch re-read the note, and cringed inwardly at what those words must have cost his partner to write. Writing away their partnership, writing away his career, letting go of everything that defined his life because he felt it was somehow better for Hutch.

You're my reason for living, mushbrain. How could you think losing you by my side every day is what I need? How could you think that Flores—great guy that he is—means anything remotely close to what you mean to me? Damn it, Starsky, I love you...with my whole heart and soul...with my body if you'd let me.

He folded the note and put it back in its envelope and tucked it in his pocket. Enough was enough. Pledging his love to an empty apartment wasn't very useful, and it wasn't helping him find Starsky. The way things stood now, their partnership was already over. He had precious little to lose—and everything to gain—by finding Starsky and laying it all out for him.

**********

The Pits was just starting to fill up with the happy hour crowd when Hutch located Huggy behind the bar.

"Have you seen Starsky today?" he asked directly, omitting even a greeting.

"Yeah, I saw him. Said he was goin' away for a few days." Huggy stopped at that, apparently not planning to be the fount of information he usually was.

"Where?"

"Also said he wanted to be on his own for a while."

"Huggy, look, something's going on here and I think Starsky's got the wrong idea about...about a lot of things. And him going away on his own and dwelling on things that aren't true isn't going to help him any." Huggy appeared unmoved by that speech, and Anita, who had been serving drinks, moved up to join them. "Oh, for Pete's sake, Huggy, how long have we known each other? When have you ever known me to try to do something to hurt Starsky? I just want to help him. I just want to...set him straight on some things."

"What things?" Huggy asked.

"That's...between us. But I have to see him, and it can't wait however long he's planning on hiding out wherever it is he's hiding."

"Who says I know where he is?"

"Oh, come off it," Hutch snapped back, irritated. "You probably set it up."

"You're askin' me to pick one'a you over the other—betray Starsky's confidence to give you what you want. I'm not playin' that game. He's okay, so let him be. You can talk to him when he gets back."

"It'll be too late!" Hutch retorted, clenched fists on the bar. He took in a deep breath and relaxed his hands, laying the palms flat on the cool wood. "Huggy, I need to see him. Not next week, or in a few days, but now. Tonight if possible."

"I'll let him know you wanna see him, then he can—"

"Damn it, Huggy, he's gonna know I want to see him! Why do you think he went to all this trouble to hide from me? He isn't going to call me back with his address! I need help. I need to see him."

"I promised him I wouldn't say nothin'. Is he in some kinda danger?" Huggy asked, and Hutch briefly considered lying, but then decided against it.

"No. But...our whole relationship could hinge on this."

"He wasn't mad at you, he just didn't wanna see you."

"This isn't as simple as just an argument. God help me, if that was all it was, I'd let him cool off and fix it when he got back. This is...huge..." Hutch gestured a little helplessly, then his shoulders sagged. "You aren't gonna help me, are you?"

"I'll tell him you wanna see him real bad, and have him call you. That's the best I can do. He made me promise—"

"Okay. Okay. Whatever. I'll find him myself." Hutch stalked away from the bar angrily and slammed through the door.

He was just starting his car when there was a rapid, staccato tap at his window. He rolled it down to talk to Anita, who handed him a small slip of paper.

"Go talk to him. Work things out. He looked real sad without you," she said, smiling as she moved back a little.

"Thanks, Anita. You're beautiful, you know that?" Hutch said, smiling broadly.

"I know. If you weren't so hung up on that partner'a yours, I might have a chance with you."

Hutch gaped at her, and she just smiled and waved, hurrying back into the bar.

**********

Starsky walked along the deck of the beach house, still a little incredulous that Huggy had found him someplace this nice to hole up and think. He'd expected a sleazy flophouse somewhere, or maybe some dive out in the sticks. This was beautiful—the kind of place rich people visited for the weekend. He'd decided upon arriving that he didn't want to know where Huggy's friend got the money for this place, or how he managed to keep it, or what paid for the expensive furnishings and art on the walls.

He figured Hutch had read the note by now and was probably knocking himself out trying to find him. For causing Hutch any undue worry, he was truly sorry. Still, a long, emotional scene wasn't something he felt up to. He'd cried like an overly-emotional schoolgirl while he wrote the letter, and telling it to Hutch in person would have ripped what was left of his heart out and destroyed it.

Giving away what you loved most hurt like a son of a bitch, and Starsky could still feel the open wound throbbing and bleeding, not unlike a gunshot hole in his body. When the phone rang, he jumped. Hesitant, he went to it and picked it up.

"Yeah?"

"Your partner's lookin' for you," Huggy said.

"Big surprise. You didn't tell him anything, did you?"

"'Course not. But he was real upset—real determined to talk to you. Said your whole relationship depended on it."

"Yeah, well, I figured he'd see it that way. Just...tell him not to worry about me, that I'll talk all he wants when I come home, and that everything's okay. But don't tell him where I am, okay?"

"You're the doctor."

"You think I oughtta talk to him, huh?"

"He was pretty upset. Yeah, I think you oughtta just call the guy so he doesn't go nuts."

"I'll think about it. Thanks, Hug—for getting me this place, and for covering for me. I appreciate it."

"Hey, what're friends for? I gotta go. Place is jumpin' tonight." With that, he hung up, and so did Starsky.

He'd brought some groceries with him, and it crossed his mind that this would be the logical time to fix dinner. Letting out a long breath, Starsky determined he felt about as much like eating now as he had in the first hours after Terry's death. His insides felt more shredded now than they had in the hospital, in a way that only her death had ever shredded them before. Gunther had certainly gotten revenge on him... he'd had to give up the most precious thing in his world because of those three well-placed bullets. [insert 501-4.jpg]

Grabbing a bottle of wine, his guitar, and the envelope of photos he'd taken with him on an impulse, he walked out on the deck and down the wood steps to the grass. The sun was setting on the water, and if he'd had the heart for it, he'd have spent the sunset snapping photos and hoping he had the ability to capture its magnificence on film.

There were almost 100 steps from the top of the grassy slope to the beach below, and he eschewed them and the sand to sit there on the grass and look out over the ocean. The view was spectacular.

Finally get to spend a vacation in the kind of place I always wanted to stay and I'm so fucking miserable that it doesn't matter. Starsky snorted a laugh at himself. "I hate my life," he muttered, smiling ironically and shaking his head.

He popped the cork on the wine and hoisted the bottle, guzzling down a couple gulps. To hell with propriety. Who was going to see him drink out of the bottle? A sea gull?

Opening the envelope, he took out the stack of photos, and as he found the few he had of himself with Hutch, he took another belt of the wine.

Hutch was the most beautiful blond he'd ever seen. The sunlight in the park that day had made that pale yellow hair glow. Starsky closed his eyes and tried to push aside the image that was fighting to take shape. An image of what it would have been like that day, sitting there together on the blanket, to move closer and press his lips against those full lips of Hutch's, to bury his fingers in that gold silk and get his fill of feeling it.

Sleeping with Hutch had been the best experience of his life. Talking late into the night, sharing confidences...sometimes waking up to find that big, warm body close to him.

Nearly dying had made him realize one thing—there was only one person he loved so much he couldn't leave...only one person who meant more to him than anything. Only one person who owned his heart and soul. He'd tried like hell not to fall in love with Hutch, not to feel anything more than friendship, but Hutch was the most important, wonderful part of his life. Before he'd faced death head-on, it had been easy to push any unsettling thoughts about his relationship with his partner aside and write them off as close friendship—the fact that maybe they spent too much time together. Now he found it harder and harder to go through life playing games, when life was, at its longest, too damn short for it.

He'd never been more keenly aware of the depth of his feelings for Hutch than when he'd made the painful decision to let him go. He'd known it was best when he was sick, when he'd first reached that conclusion. Dr. Fielding had raised his hopes, made him toy with that fantasy again of being back on the streets together...and then he'd seen Hutch with Flores in the gym—two healthy men who were equals in every sense. He'd realized that he could only hold Hutch back, and his constant presence and the continued hope of him returning to street duty would do nothing but mangle Hutch's chances to form a good, strong partnership with someone who was worthy of him.

His continued presence in Hutch's life was a drain on the man's energy and concentration, and he knew the right thing to do was to make his plans...somewhere else. To move away, to let go fully so Hutch could have a life that wasn't so divided. To reduce what had been the single greatest love of his entire life to exchanged cards at holidays and the occasional phone call.

Not sure if it was the wine, the pain of the thoughts, or the solitude of his setting, he gave in to the tears that flowed then, crying openly and desperately, wondering how he'd ever mend this particular wound. Suddenly, his physical incisions seemed insignificant by comparison.

**********

Hutch pulled up in front of the elegant beachfront retreat where his partner was allegedly staying. He double-checked the address on the slip of paper and questioned if Anita was playing some sort of joke on him. This was the type of vacation home his father and a few of his more affluent friends aspired to have. As it was, even his father hadn't ultimately been able to swing it until both children were through with college.

He cut the engine and got out of the car, noticing that there was a nondescript blue sedan in the driveway. Since the Torino had been left behind, it had to be Starsky's rental car. He approached the front door of the elaborate conglomeration of stained wood and glass and knocked. After a long wait with no answer, he left the porch and walked around the side of the large home, pausing as he caught a breathtaking view of the moon over the water.

He could hear the soft strains of a guitar mingled with the sounds of the ocean, and as he rounded the back of the house, he saw his partner sitting on the grass at the edge of the bluff overlooking the water. Before long, an incredibly sad voice joined the guitar.

Photographs and memories
Christmas cards you sent to me
All that I have are these To remember you

Memories that come at night
Take me to another time
Back to a happier day
When I called you mine...

Hutch froze by a nearby tree, resting his hand on the trunk, wishing there was something he could say or do that would dispel that awful melancholy, but if Starsky was in a funk, missing Terry, there would be very little he could do but sit by somewhat helplessly and watch. His partner did have a beautiful voice, and when he chose to lend it to something serious, and his heart was in it, it could be heartbreaking. Starsky rarely did more than sing along with Hutch, but once in a while, he seemed to feel a need to express something musically—usually, unfortunately, when he was too miserable to fully vent it any other way.

But we sure had a good time
When we started way back when
Morning walks and bedroom talks
Oh how I loved you then

Summer skies and lullabies
Nights we couldn't say goodbye
And of all of the things that we knew
Not a dream survived...

Starsky's voice cracked badly on the last words, but his fingers didn't miss a note on the strings. Hutch moved a little closer, wanting to reach out to him, and yet not wanting to stop the song until it finished. Even if Starsky was suffering, it was such a beautiful, rare moment of unpretentious, sincere song from him that the musician in Hutch couldn't bear to interrupt it.

Photographs and memories
All the love you gave to me
Somehow it just can't be true
That's all I've left of you...

But we sure had a good thing
When we started way back when
Morning walks and bedroom talks
Oh how I loved you then...

Starsky set the guitar aside and picked up the bottle of wine that was sitting next to him, taking a couple swallows. Then he stiffened a little, not unlike a cat who detects the presence of a predator. He was totally still a moment before he turned around and was up on his knees, staring at Hutch in surprise.

"How long have you been there?" he asked, his voice more weak with surprise than accusation.

"That's a beautiful song, isn't it?" Hutch said, moving closer. "You always did do a good Jim Croce imitation," he added, smiling. He hoped a little levity in his voice might assuage the gathering storm of Starsky's anger at having been tracked, at having his private retreat invaded against his will. The storm did not gather, and that worried Hutch even more. Starsky just slumped until his butt hit his heels.

"Yeah, I'm good at doing imitations of the real thing," he responded sadly. "How'd you find me?"

"Informant who wishes to remain anonymous," Hutch said, sitting down on the grass himself now, not far from Starsky, facing him.

"Anita, huh?"

"How'd you figure that one out?"

"I heard from Huggy after you went to The Pits, and I figured he didn't talk. Anita's always had a thing for you, so if she knew anything, she was the logical suspect." Starsky hadn't looked up from the wine bottle he was turning in his hands. "Doesn't matter."

"You mind?" Hutch asked, reaching out. Starsky looked up, a little confused, then handed him the bottle of wine. After he'd taken a swallow, he handed it back.

"Keep it. I polished off more'n half of it already. Doesn't do any good anyway."

"Thinking about Terry, buddy?" Hutch asked gently.

"What?" Starsky looked up at him, genuinely confused.

"I-I heard the song...I thought...you were maybe...missing her."

"Shows how much you know about anything." Starsky picked up the envelope of photos and tossed them next to Hutch, who picked it up, opening the flap and looking inside. The images that greeted him were photos of himself and Starsky at the park, and some photos of him...ironing of all things. Photos he never realized were taken.

"When did you take these?"

"A few weeks ago. When you were sharpening the pleats in your pants until you could slice tomatoes with ‘em. I think you had a date with...oh, what was her name...that nurse you met while I was in the hospital?"

"Judy? Oh, yeah, I remember now."

"Got home about ten, as I recall. Guess you struck out, huh?" Starsky needled.

"Guess I wasn't trying too hard." Hutch tucked the photos back in the envelope. "You were thinking about me? About...us?" Starsky nodded. "That's real nice, buddy. So maybe you wanna tell me what the hell this is all about then?" Hutch asked, pulling the letter out of his pocket. "You drop a bomb like this and then just walk away? That's a hell of a way to end a partnership, partner," Hutch added angrily. He hadn't realized himself that he was angry with Starsky, as well as worried about him, until now.

"I knew if we talked face-to-face, you wouldn't listen to me. You'd tell me I was wrong and you'd try to change my mind. I had to do it this way so I could get it all out in one breath before...before I lost my nerve."

"If you're no more certain about it than that—"

"I'm certain about it, Hutch." Starsky sighed sadly, then shook his head. "Bein' certain doesn't make it easier. If you've got gangrene in your leg, you might know it needs cuttin' off, but that doesn't make you reach for the nearest saw with a smile on your face."

"So you're comparing our partnership to gangrene? Thanks a lot, old pal."

"No, I'm comparing losing it to cutting off my leg, Hutch. For a college boy, you sure as hell can be dense with metaphors."

"Apparently you think I need another college boy to keep me in check, huh? You're not up to the job anymore?"

"In case you haven't looked lately, I'm out on disability, and most likely am gonna stay that way."

"Dr. Fielding gave you bad news this morning, huh?" Hutch asked, his tone much gentler now. In all the excitement, he'd forgotten Starsky even had a check-up that morning.

"No, not really. She gave me this pep talk about keeping on trying. For a while there, I was convinced I was gonna make it."

"What happened between the doctor's office and this?" Hutch waved the note.

"A reality check." Starsky moved so he was sitting cross-legged on the ground. "Dr. Norman wrote me off too fast...Dr. Fielding doesn't have the heart to write me off at all. And you're gonna end up waitin' forever for me to get back in shape to go on active duty, and it's gonna cost you your partner. Flores is a good guy—with a good track record. He'll make somebody a hell of a partner. If I can't be there to watch your back, I wanna know somebody good is doin' it." Starsky closed his eyes and swallowed. "It's all in the note, Hutch. Why're you makin' me go over it again?"

"Because this note is a crock of shit." Hutch tore it in half and tossed it aside on the grass, visibly startling Starsky. "Do you think for one fucking minute that I want another partner?"

"No, but I think one of us has to face facts. And I guess it's gotta be me."

"If you can't go back on active duty, that's a fact we'll face together, when it happens. But that doesn't change how I feel about you...it doesn't change that I want you in my life."

"I'm not gonna throw myself off the bluff here. I'll still be around," Starsky said, forcing a slight lopsided smile.

"I'm not letting you go," Hutch said, taking a hold of Starsky's shoulders. "Not ever."

"Hey, come on, buddy. I didn't leave the country. I was just talkin' about the job."

"You're giving up. You're walking out. And it's not gonna be long before we're reduced to a once-a-month get together. That's not enough."

"Hutch, it's lookin' a lot like all that's left of me is...me. I...I can't keep up with you in the gym—hell, even when I was healthy, I couldn't give you a run for your money on the mat the way Flores can."

"You're jealous of Flores, is that it? God, this is like something out of a bad romance novel."

"Don't make fun'a me, Hutch. I'm really not up for that tonight." Starsky got up and turned to face the water. "I guess that's fair, though. I was jealous'a him at first. I hated his guts and I never even met the guy. But that was early on. The more I thought about it, I realized that I was...I was just being selfish—hangin' onto somethin' I couldn't handle anymore. Holdin' you back from being partners with somebody who was worthy of it. This morning, I realized that wasn't me."

"What are you talking about?" Hutch got up now and moved to stand next to his partner—his only partner.

"Nothing."

"It meant something or you wouldn't have said it." Hutch watched while Starsky sighed, then looked up at him with haunted eyes. "While you're at it, you can tell me what you meant about Flores giving me a run for my money ‘on the mat'."

"I was gonna take you to lunch—you know, someplace nice...to celebrate. I mean, it wasn't a big deal, but it seemed like good news from the doctor, and I felt really good. I got home and ran up my front steps and hardly even noticed it." Starsky smiled faintly. "When I got to headquarters, I saw Lizzie, and she said you were down in the gym with Flores—that you guys usually worked out together after your shift."

"Damn," Hutch said softly, closing his eyes. "Starsk—"

"Hey, you couldn't really stay in shape doing the old man exercises I can do. I went downstairs ‘cause I figured I'd meet this guy, quit bein' such a jealous asshole...and when I got there, you were wrestling. And I just realized...he's your equal, Hutch. He's healthy and whole and strong...he can wrestle, and he's smarter that I am, and he'll be a good partner for you. Makin' you wait forever while I play around in the gym hoping for a miracle isn't fair. You've got a good chance here, and I want you to take it before it's too late."

"You finished outlining what I should think and feel and want?"

"Hutch, come on...I just want what's best for you. And me hangin' around isn't it. I figure I'll go someplace else, start over with another kinda job, and we'll still be friends. But you'll have time to...to have a life. Not to spend it worrying about me." Starsky paused. "When you were wrestling around with Flores, and laughing...you looked happier than I've seen you look in months. And if I can't make you look that way, I want..." Starsky stopped, blinking and swallowing hard, "I want ya t'have what it takes to make you smile like that all the time." He fought to keep his composure and added, in a whisper, "Because...I love ya so much."

"Did it ever occur to you that you walking out of my life was gonna pull my guts out? Or don't I get a say in what makes me happy?"

"I figured it'd be hard at first, but you're not gonna have time to sit around missin' me. You've got your job, and you'll get to be close with Flores—"

"Will you forget Flores for a minute? Damn it, Starsky, he's a temporary partner. He's a good cop. He's smart and he knows how to wrestle. Big fucking deal! So do a couple million other guys out there." Hutch grabbed Starsky's shoulders again, his grip even firmer this time. "Flores is a good guy, but he could be one of a hundred different guys I could probably get along with. But there's only one partner I want."

"I might not make it back, Hutch."

"I wasn't just talking about the job." Hutch braced himself and tried to muster the strength to follow this through now that he'd started it. Starsky was looking into his eyes with a kind of sad desperation, as if he wanted Hutch to find some compelling argument for why his painful decision was wrong.

Most of all, Hutch didn't want what he was about to say to be mistaken as some platonic declaration of brotherly love or fraternal fellow cop loyalty.

Leaving one hand on Starsky's shoulder, he brought the other one up to cup his cheek. "I love you, babe, and nothing in my life is gonna be right or beautiful or happy if I don't have you to share it with."

"I might be all washed up, Hutch."

"Then you'll have a different job...hell, maybe we both will." Hutch smiled. "When I was sitting by your bed in the hospital, waiting for you to wake up, I wasn't waiting for Sergeant Starsky to wake up. I was waiting for you."

"It just feels like I'm this...burden on you all the time...like you can't ever have any fun with me...draining you."

"Maybe we're both taking everything a little too seriously. Maybe we need more picnics in the park—days at the beach," Hutch gestured at the water. "We almost lost everything, and now we've got it back and we're not even enjoying it."

"We don't have everything back, Hutch."

"Yes, we do. I have everything back. I have you...or...I want to have you, if you'll stick around."

"I didn't wanna leave," Starsky admitted softly. "And I didn't wanna feel...the way I do, like...like the whole world was fallin' apart because of not bein' with you."

"You're coming home with me then, right?"

"Well...yeah," Starsky said, smiling. "But I wanna take advantage'a this place for a couple'a days. Think you could call in sick or something?"

"Or something," Hutch agreed, smiling. Then he became more serious, realizing he was letting the golden moment slip by again. "Starsk...I..." He let the words hang there, and then, without giving himself a chance to back down, he moved forward, and covered Starsky's mouth with his own, pulling his startled partner into his arms.

There was a horrible moment where Starsky stiffened, his mouth unresponsive. Just as Hutch was about to accept he'd destroyed everything he'd worked so hard to save, the mouth beneath his softened, the lips parting slightly, a hesitant tongue venturing just a tip out to touch his own. The tense muscles relaxed and Starsky's arms were coming up around him, an eager hand sliding into his hair.

Hutch smiled into the deepening kiss, realizing that he was quickly losing control and dominance of this moment. Starsky's mouth was hungrily responding to his, the briefly shy tongue now boldly demanding entrance as Starsky moaned low in his throat.

When they broke the kiss, sharing heaving breaths, both men smiled.

"I seem to recall somebody tellin' me I wasn't a good kisser," Starsky teased. "You, uh, wanna reconsider that, Blondie?"

"That could take years of in-depth research." Hutch moved in for another kiss, which was as greedily accepted as the first. "God, Starsk, I thought this was gonna be the end of everything," Hutch admitted, resting his forehead against Starsky's.

"Yeah, well, it kinda shakes things up a little, doesn't it?"

"Y-you thought about this before...before tonight?"

"About kissin' you? Maybe not exactly that before tonight," Starsky said, moving away a little, looking out at the water. "But I was thinkin' about something. I knew something was different. After the shooting, I started realizing it. After almost dying, it got harder and harder to pretend it wasn't there. It got harder not to live my life the way I want to. ‘Course, it was a little weird when I realized I was lookin' at your hair and your eyes and wantin' to touch you in ways that were...different." Starsky turned back to look at him again. "You're awful quiet while I'm spillin' my guts here. You started this kissing thing tonight—not that I'm complainin' or anything."

"There's something you need to know about me, and you might not feel the same way about me when I tell you."

"You've been secretly wanting my body for years and just didn't know how to tell me?" Starsky teased, and the words sliced into Hutch's heart like a dagger. It must have shown on his face, because Starsky's smile disappeared. "Hutch? Hey, babe, come on, what is it?" Starsky's hands were on his shoulders now.

"I..." Hutch swallowed. "I've...been...I've been attracted to men before." The words sounded too cold, too...general. As if what they'd just shared could have happened with any man Hutch found attractive. "I didn't mean it that way. Starsk...it's...it's just you...but..."

"Hey, come on, babe, calm down." Starsky's hands came up on either side of his face now. "Take it nice and slow and tell me what you're tryin' to say."

"I did say it. I...I can get interested in men...the same as women. I've been interested in a man before."

"But you still like women? So you're sayin' you're AC/DC?"

"I guess so."

"So this thing with me...is it one of those physical things?" Starsky let go of his face. "'Cause if it is, once you get a good look at me with my shirt off, you'll get over it real fast. That's not the same anymore either," he added quietly.

"There's a part of it that's physical—the part of it that made me want to kiss you. But the rest of it is...it's so deep, and so...real. I love you, babe. Like I've never loved anybody else in my life." He rested a hand on Starsky's chest, in the area bared by the open buttons of his shirt. "And there's nothing about you I find ugly."

"Yeah, well, they say love is blind, I guess," Starsky said, snorting a little laugh.

"Aw, Starsk. Don't." Words weren't enough, and Hutch pulled Starsky closer to him, his arms around his middle, loosely enough so they could still face each other. Starsky's arms came around him too, a little more hesitantly this time. "You think you're going to show me something I haven't seen before?"

"The only thing I could think of when we met those girls in Huggy's—before I got sick?" Hutch nodded, and Starsky continued. "I kept thinkin' what it was gonna be like if I took her back to my place and unveiled the damage. Talk about a turn-off." Starsky looked down.

"Hey," Hutch said softly, nudging his chin up with one finger. "I'm not a one-night stand pick-up at The Pits. I love you, remember?"

"I know that, but lovin' me and lovin' this...thing that used to pass for a body are two different things. It never had anything to do with us before, but now it does, and it's somethin' to think about."

"The only thing I want to think about when it comes to getting your clothes off is how I'm gonna make you feel good." Hutch moved in for another kiss then, hoping to remind Starsky of the passionate desire that had started all this. The kiss was returned enthusiastically, but when it was over, Starsky still looked a bit forlorn.

"I haven't done it with anybody since the shooting. Haven't seemed to care much about it."

"You've been pretty unhappy all those weeks, babe. Makes it hard to think about sex when your whole life's up in the air."

"Sex means getting naked, and...and I never used to even think about that. When I wanted it, and the lady involved wanted it, we did it. I didn't feel funny about takin' my clothes off. I've been in and outta locker rooms and showers most'a my life. I never thought much about it—never felt...funny."

"We won't go any farther than what you want—but if you're thinking that seeing you naked is going to be any big turn-off—or any big surprise, for that matter—you're wrong. You don't have anything I haven't seen, and I'm still here," Hutch said gently, stroking back through the dark curls.

"It's gettin' chilly out here. Maybe we oughtta go inside. There's a big fireplace and all kinds'a pillows in the living room," Starsky said, grinning a little mischievously.

"Let's quit wasting our time out here then," Hutch responded, smiling back and moving away to pick up the photos and the wine. Starsky grabbed his guitar and then paused. With a brief hesitation, he reached out and took a hold of Hutch's hand as they walked up toward the house.

"Maybe tomorrow night we can take a walk on the beach."

"You're planning a regular vacation out here, aren't you?" Hutch teased, squeezing Starsky's hand.

"Probably the only time in my life I'm ever gonna get to stay in a place like this. ‘Course, that was before when I thought I wasn't gonna be a cop anymore so I didn't worry about how Huggy's pal pays for all of it."

"Do we know who this ‘pal' is?"

"Didn't ask, didn't look. I figure I could rifle the desk in the bedroom upstairs, but I didn't much care when I got here. Don't much care now. Got better things to do with my hands than go through a desk."

The inside of the house was as spectacular as Hutch expected it would be. A full wall of windows overlooked the water, and the beamed cathedral ceilings and fieldstone fireplace made the living room an impressive work of art. As promised, there were numerous pillows in varying shades of brown, tan and cream piled in abundance near the fireplace.

"There anything better here than this stuff?" Hutch held up the bottle of now flat, room temperature wine.

"Yeah—I think there's Dom Perignon in the fridge, but I didn't wanna take it."

"Good point. Anything not so good?"

"Mmm..." Starsky led the way into the huge kitchen, which was a symphony of chrome and smoked glass. From the refrigerator he produced a bottle of domestic champagne. "This doesn't look too expensive."

"Well, it is, but not like the Dom Perignon. I can leave enough cash to cover this." Hutch took the bottle while Starsky located glasses. "You bring any food up here?"

"Oh, yeah. I brought a few basics. Frozen pizza, cold meat, beer—"

"All the staples of a healthy diet." Hutch worked on the cork, and it finally let go with a satisfying pop and only marginal spillage. "Figured we ought to dribble on the linoleum instead of the $200 per yard carpeting."

"Whaddya think this guy does, anyway?" Starsky asked as they returned to the living room.

"Do we wanna know?" Hutch set the champagne bottle on the lower ledge of the fireplace, and noticed it had gas logs. "I guess this place would roast us alive with a real fire."

"Guess it'd seem kinda silly to turn up the air conditioning so we can have a real fire," Starsky responded, turning out the last of the lamps in the living room.

It was on the tip of Hutch's tongue to complain about the darkness, but there was a marginal glow from the fireplace, and if the dark made Starsky more comfortable, then he wasn't about to needle him over it. There would be other times to gently coax him into forgetting about what he considered a horrible disfigurement. Someday, he'd make Starsky believe that no scar on earth could mar him in his partner's eyes.

"Ow," Starsky mumbled, catching his foot on a chair leg and almost falling into the pillows with Hutch. "That was romantic." He rubbed his stocking-covered foot and then abandoned it to accept the champagne glass. Hutch filled it, then filled his own.

"To our partnership—on the force or off," Hutch said, holding up his glass. "If you walk out on me again, I'll hunt you down to the ends of the earth and drag you back."

"I'll drink to that," Starsky said, chortling as he tapped his glass against Hutch's. After they'd each had a sip of the champagne, Starsky added, "I won't take off again. I honestly thought it would be better in the long run."

"If you thought that, you don't know me very well."

"I didn't say it would be the easiest, or that it wouldn't hurt, but sometimes you need to move on, and I wanted you to be able to do that."

"Yeah, well, anyplace I could move on to that means splitting us up isn't a place I need to go." Hutch hesitated a minute, then leaned forward and found himself met halfway by his soon-to-be lover. The thought sent a jolt of shock, excitement and disbelief through his system. This kiss was less urgent, but just as sweet as the ones shared outside on the bluff.

Starsky set his own champagne aside, then took Hutch's and put the glass next to his own. Moving forward, he claimed Hutch's mouth more aggressively this time, and while Hutch conceded the battle of lips, he wound his arms around his partner's body and pulled him forward until he was on his back on the pillows and Starsky lay on top of him, the kiss unbroken.

His hands stroked up Starsky's sides and over his back, feeling the warm, healthy body moving beneath the fabric of the shirt. No matter what new extremes Starsky could demand from his healed body in the name of returning to active duty, he was healthy. He was alive. His heart pumped, his muscles flexed, his chest rose and fell with healthy—albeit increasingly rapid—respiration.

Finding the shirttails that hadn't been tucked into Starsky's jeans, Hutch slid his hands under the fabric, feeling the warm skin there, moving up...

"Hutch..." Starsky moved away, breaking the intense and delicious kissing that had kept them joined for long minutes. "Don't."

"Don't what, babe? Touch you?"

"Just...leave the shirt alone, okay?"

"No, it's not okay." Hutch took Starsky's troubled face in both hands. "I want to make love to you. All of you. You don't have a mark on you I haven't seen. Haven't touched, for that matter. Don't shut me out, babe. Let me love you," Hutch pleaded softly, kissing Starsky again, pulling him in close, keeping his touches on the outside of the shirt, forcing himself not to return to that soft, warm skin beneath until Starsky gave his consent.

"Your skin's like silk," Starsky said a little breathlessly, his hand skimming the part of Hutch's chest exposed by the open buttons of his shirt. "The scars...they feel...funny. And they're so damned ugly, Hutch. I hate ‘em. I know I'm s'posed t'be grateful I'm not dead, and I am, but I hate lookin' in the mirror and seein' this monster lookin' back at me," Starsky admitted brokenly, his eyes focused on Hutch's chest until they closed at the painful words. "I hate ‘em and I want ‘em to go away."

"I know, babe." Hutch gave up on the pep talks and reassurances for now, pulling Starsky close against him and stroking his hair.

The scars were less atrocious than they had been at the beginning—Hutch could barely think of them as ugly at all...he never had, even when he'd seen them in their early stages, when only someone looking through the eyes of love could have avoided feeling repulsed. They'd been horrid bullet wounds and a significant incision complete with its Frankensteinesque stitches. Now they were just...different skin. Different in color, different in texture, and looking less and less striking every day. Starsky's body hair was filling in nicely, and while he'd never completely hide them, they were certainly less of an issue when obscured by the dusting of dark curls there.

"They're gonna fade, buddy. Time'll change them a lot, you'll see," Hutch said gently.

"But they're always gonna be there."

"Yeah, they'll always be there." Hutch kissed the top of Starsky's head. "Just like me."

"Guess I sorta broke the mood, huh?" Starsky asked sheepishly, raising up on his elbows and looking down at Hutch.

"You'll figure something out to make it up to me." With that, he rolled them over until he pinned Starsky beneath him. "Let me love you, babe," he whispered against Starsky's ear, kissing it and tugging gently on the lobe with his teeth. He moved over then and covered Starsky's mouth with his own, taking the passionate response as consent.

Eager fingers were on his shirt buttons now, Starsky obviously not content to play anything resembling a passive role. He wasn't about to let a little thing like being pinned to the pillows get the best of him. Happy that his partner raised the stakes first, Hutch worked on the buttons of Starsky's shirt, and before long, they were kissing again, bare chest against bare chest.

Hutch felt the shirt being pushed somewhat clumsily off his shoulders and he cooperated with the movement, finally tossing the shirt aside. Starsky looked a little uneasy, but he rose up a bit and discarded his own shirt, falling back against the pillows. Hutch resisted the urge to drink in his fill of the sight, because the last thing he wanted was for Starsky to feel more exposed or uncomfortable than he already did. Instead, he moved down until they were in each other's arms again, free now to let their hands roam over chests, shoulders and backs, hearts beating against one another, finding a shared rhythm.

Breaking away from Starsky's mouth, Hutch kissed and nibbled his way down to his lover's throat, licking at the little hollow there. He moved down cautiously, slowly, until his questing lips found a nipple. Knowing how sensitive his own could be, he flicked it with his tongue, drawing the first little moan out of Starsky. Spurred on by the response, he fastened his mouth to the little protrusion and sucked. Starsky gasped and moaned again, his hands sliding into Hutch's hair. [insert 501-5.jpg]

"God, babe...that's good," Starsky managed.

Hutch abandoned the first nipple and kissed his way to the other, taking it into his mouth now, loving the way Starsky arched under him, a note of surprise in his pleasured groans. All the time he'd imagined what he'd do at this moment and now it was here, and it was better than any of his fantasies. Starsky was excited and responsive, and, by some miracle, he wanted this as much as Hutch did himself.

Lost in the task of pleasing the man beneath him, Hutch began kissing his way down the center of Starsky's chest, but found himself pulled back up for more kisses.

"My turn, Blondie," Starsky said against his mouth before kissing him again, then rolling them over so he was on top. Hutch ignored the nagging inner voice that told him that it was Starsky's continued unease about the scarring lower on his body that had made him stop Hutch in his tracks. What was happening now was incredibly beautiful, and he wasn't about to waste it by questioning the "why" of it.

Starsky was licking and sucking at a spot on his neck, making his mark. On Hutch's fair skin, passion marks seemed to shine like beacons—and Starsky was staking his claim. The thought made Hutch's cock twitch and harden in the tight confines of his jeans. Licking the spot tenderly now, Starsky moved away from it, kissing his way to a nipple, which he eagerly sucked into his mouth.

It was Hutch's turn to gasp and clutch at Starsky's hair, trying to ensure that the hot mouth that was working his flesh never left it. But leave it did, moving to the other side, feasting on the little nub there with the same enthusiasm.

"Love you, babe," Hutch muttered, arching into the sensation, wondering if this was some sort of waking dream.

"I wanna get you outta these pants," Starsky breathed against his ear, those nimble fingers resting on his belt buckle.

"I'll show you mine if you show me yours," Hutch countered, and Starsky laughed, looking down at him with a lingering smile that was filled with more joy and love than Hutch could ever remember seeing.

"Deal."

Starsky opened the belt and then leaned forward and took the pull of the zipper in his teeth, keeping eye contact with Hutch as he moved it slowly downward, a smile spreading across his face as Hutch gulped at the vision.

"My, uh, b-boots," Hutch managed, suddenly realizing Starsky wasn't going to get far trying to peel his jeans off without removing the boots first.

"Whatsa matter, babe? Am I a little too close to the family jewels?" Starsky teased, releasing the metal from his teeth.

"You're, uh, not gonna get my pants off without taking off the boots first."

"I would'a figured that out, Hutch, but thanks for the tip," Starsky said, smiling and moving down to pull off the infamous boots. "You're not the first person I ever got naked, y'know." Then, looking up at Hutch, he added, "Just the most important." Abandoning the stocking feet, he moved up and grasped the waistbands of his jeans and underwear, and Hutch realized suddenly that Starsky was going for the gusto in one swift motion.

In a moment, he found himself naked, except for his socks. He was sporting a significant erection and wondered how Starsky was going to feel confronted with the reality of being with another man sexually.

"My turn," Hutch insisted, sitting up and reaching for Starsky's belt. Once the buckle was open, he slowly slid the zipper down, feeling the flesh straining behind it. Perhaps Starsky wasn't the only one who had a large male reality to face. This wasn't some sweet, fragile, soft, curvy woman. This was his very male, increasingly strong partner. His time in the gym was bringing back his tone and definition, and the erection that sprang free from its denim prison was just as hard and eager as Hutch's.

Since Starsky was sitting back on his heels, getting his jeans off proved to be a little more challenging, and ended with him body-slamming Hutch flat on his back on the pillows while Hutch fought with the soft, tight denim. Finally it was out of the way, and at last they found themselves skin on skin, with no barriers.

"How do you wanna do it?" Starsky asked.

"We could use our hands—do each other?" Hutch suggested. He wasn't ready to try anything more exotic, and figured Starsky wasn't exactly ready for it either.

"Just like you," Starsky said, wrapping his hand around Hutch's needy cock. "Long, blond and smooth," Starsky said against Hutch's ear as he began pumping. Hutch let out a surprised cry of pleasure at the stimulation, lying there with his legs splayed open, shamelessly enjoying the work Starsky's hand was doing. "Come on, babe, I'm not at this party by myself."

At Starsky's gentle urging, Hutch took the firm column of Starsky's cock in hand and began pumping, trying to match his rhythm to his partner's.

"Aw, God, Hutch...yeah, that's it, babe," Starsky gasped, his face resting against Hutch's neck. Hutch angled his head down and Starsky moved up eagerly, their mouths meeting and tongues sliding together, moving in time with their hands.

"Starsk...babe...I'm gonna...It's coming..." Hutch managed, letting out a shout as he spurted his completion over Starsky's hand and belly. Struggling to recover from the delicious aftershocks coursing through his system, Hutch turned his attention to his lover's pleasure. While one hand continued to pump the rigid shaft, the other slipped down to cup and roll Starsky's balls.

"Yeah, babe...oh, God...Hutch...Huuuutch!" Starsky's climax washed over him as he cried out, bathing Hutch's hand.

They lay there together for long minutes, breathing heavily and recovering, slumped together in a tangle of sweaty limbs. Starsky rested his head on Hutch's shoulder and wound an arm over his waist. Hutch took the cue and enclosed his partner in his arms, lazily kissing his forehead.

"I love you," Starsky muttered, his voice almost slurred with sleep.

"I know. I love you too, buddy." Hutch gave in to his own lethargy then and followed Starsky into the peaceful realm of sleep.

**********

When Starsky opened his eyes, the first rays of sunlight were casting a rosy glow to the room. The part of him that was snuggled against Hutch was nice and warm, but his back and butt were freezing, and he contemplated looking over his shoulder to see if they'd turned blue. Despite that, he smiled as he listened to the steady thump of Hutch's sleeping heart beneath his ear. What had begun as the most painful, horrible day of his life had ended in the most magical way possible.

Amazing how, after getting shot three times, leaving Hutch still takes the prize as the most painful thing that ever happened to me, Starsky mused, smiling and relaxing again.

The specter of old prejudices wafted briefly through his mind, made him feel as if he should somehow resist what was happening, turn back, forget he'd ever made love with Hutch... He looked up at his sleeping partner and smiled, snuggling closer. If I'm a faggot, then I'm the happiest damn faggot on Earth, he thought defiantly.

"Your back's cold," Hutch mumbled, still partially asleep, as one large arm moved up and down the expanse of chilled flesh.

"Thanks for the tip, babe," Starsky responded, smiling and kissing the flesh near his mouth.

"There a blanket around here?" Hutch opened one eye and started to shift, and Starsky hauled himself up, wandering over to the couch where he found a colorful Southwestern throw. He returned to their nest of pillows, and cuddling close again with his lover, he opened the throw and covered them both.

"That's better."

"Hey." Hutch was looking down into his eyes now.

"What?"

"You looked pretty damn good running around naked," Hutch said, grinning mischievously. Starsky felt himself blushing, but it wasn't a happy blush. He was groggy yet and had forgotten all about the scars...about how ugly he really looked without clothes on. "Starsk, come on, buddy. A few pink patches and a line on your skin don't make you ugly."

"I know what I look like, Hutch. If you can accept...and love...somethin' that looks like this, then...I'm real glad, because I love ya more than I can say. But don't try and tell me it's not ugly."

"Okay, I won't, because you won't listen anyway," Hutch said with a note of defeat in his voice. "You think what you want. I love you, and I don't think any part of you is ugly, so quit trying to convince me that it is, okay?"

"I'm sorry. I guess I'm ruining everything, huh?"

"No." Hutch's voice was infinitely more gentle now as he stroked Starsky's hair. "You didn't ruin anything. But you're beautiful, babe. You always have been, and nothing's gonna change my feelings about that—or about you. Sure as hell not a couple marks on your body." Hutch's hand moved slowly over the scars on Starsky's back from the exit wounds. "I'm so damn lucky to still have you," Hutch said in a strained voice, shifting onto his side and wrapping his arms tightly around Starsky, who eagerly returned the embrace.

"Thanks for comin' out here and getting me." Starsky meant the words sincerely. He was infinitely thankful that Hutch had persevered in finding him, and had managed to turn around what would have been the most painful, horrible mistake of his life.

"I'd go wherever it took to get you back. To Hell if necessary."

"At least I picked a better spot than that," Starsky quipped, and smiled as he felt the rumble of Hutch's answering laughter.

"Did I mention to you yet this morning that I was crazy about you?" Hutch asked, pulling back to look into Starsky's eyes.

"You might've alluded to it, but I don't think you said it, and I was feelin' kinda rejected." Starsky kissed Hutch's mouth quickly, the proximity of those full lips a little too much to resist. "'Specially since I love ya so much I think I'm gonna explode."

"Don't do that, buddy. If you think you've got incisions now, wait'll they have to stitch that back together." Hutch smiled, and after the momentary shock of what he'd said registered, Starsky burst out laughing. Nothing Hutch was going to say would convince him he didn't look like something out of the late night horror show, but it felt good to at least laugh about it. Humor had gotten them through a lot of pain in the past, and it helped now.

"Maybe we oughtta see about breakfast, huh?" Starsky asked hopefully. As if on cue, his stomach growled ominously.

"Maybe we oughtta check out the shower."

"Guess we're getting pretty gamy, huh?" Starsky sniffed. "Shower first, then breakfast. Wait'll you see the bathroom," Starsky enthused, getting up and reaching down to pull Hutch up. Sensing his partner's hesitation, he flexed his hand. "It's okay, babe. I can pull you." Hutch reluctantly accepted the hand and the pull, and when he was on his feet, hugged Starsky enthusiastically.

"Been a long time since you could do that," he said, smiling and stepping back.

"Guess I'm gettin' some of my strength back." Starsky flexed his eyebrows. "Wait'll you see the shower. You're not gonna believe it." With that, Starsky grabbed Hutch's hand and led the way to the stairs.

He was making a conscious effort not to think about the scars, to recapture the lack of self-consciousness he used to feel cavorting around naked with a lover. Even if he didn't succeed, he knew it would make Hutch happy to think he had.

The bathroom was nothing short of spectacular—larger than most people's living rooms. The shower was a large, square enclosure with frosted glass doors. Inside were no less than three shower heads, controlled by three separate sets of large, ornate faucets. Starsky reached in and started all three into action, testing the temperature until it suited him.

"Two shower heads I could understand," Hutch said, waiting patiently while Starsky tinkered with the faucets. "Makes you wonder what they do in here that they need three."

"Well, it was probably built during the sexual revolution," Starsky responded, chortling. "Come on, babe. Let's give it a whirl."

Enclosed together in the steamy warmth, they located the shampoo Starsky had put there when he arrived, in anticipation of a shower he never ended up taking until now.

"You mind?" Hutch asked, gesturing with the bottle.

"You've got experience," Starsky responded, smiling and relaxing while Hutch started shampooing his hair. Hutch had tackled the job on a few different occasions when Starsky had been unable to manage it on his own. Those long fingers flexing and massaging against his scalp was a sensation to which Starsky figured he could easily become addicted. When he was finished, Starsky turned and reached for the bottle. "My turn," he insisted, pooling a little shampoo in his hand.

He'd washed Hutch's hair a couple times, but since his partner's finer, straighter hair was not nearly the challenge his own thick curls presented, Hutch could usually manage on his own unless he was truly ill or seriously injured. Now, doing it for a purely pleasant reason, Starsky concentrated on the baby fine texture, marveling all over again at how what seemed like a fairly small amount of wet hair—compared to his own, anyway—could come alive into the pale yellow silk it was when it was dry.

Fortunately, there was more than one bar of soap, as both men were intent on washing the other, and neither seemed inclined to wait his turn. Soap-slick hands slid over wet skin, each touch a new beginning. Bathing one another was nothing new—nothing that hadn't been necessitated by illness or injury at some point during their relationship—but letting eager hands roam over each other's bodies in lovers' caresses was a world away from caring for and comforting a friend.

Unable to resist the pull of each other's lips any longer, they came together under the spray of water, devouring lips and tongues, hands slipping down to cup sensitive balls, stroke rigid erections, caress water-slick buttocks. When they came, they came together, their shared cries of pleasure swallowed in each other's mouths.

"I imagined this for so long," Hutch admitted, kissing down the side of Starsky's cheek to his neck. "I never thought...I never thought you'd want the same thing."

"I kinda surprised myself with that," Starsky admitted, turning his head to catch those soft lips with his own. "Never thought I could feel about anybody the way I feel about you."

"Not a man, anyway, huh?" Hutch prodded.

"Not anybody. I never loved anybody so much," Starsky admitted, finding now that he was free to express the love that had been pent up inside himself, it didn't seem to know any bounds, or any inhibitions. "We've got a lot to get used to...new things to try," Starsky added, grinning devilishly. "It's gonna be like starting our whole lives over again."

"Starting over sounds pretty good," Hutch agreed, starting to turn off the water while Starsky stepped out and located the towels.

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After drying off, Starsky produced shorts and tank shirts for both of them out of his travel bag. Their next stop was the kitchen, where they worked in perfect tandem to prepare a hearty breakfast, occasionally singing along with the radio on the kitchen counter Hutch had turned on when they started cooking.

When two strong arms wrapped around him from behind, Starsky smiled and leaned back into the embrace.

"Dance with me," Hutch whispered against his ear. "I want to dance with you...to this song," he added. Unable to resist that soft plea, Starsky turned in his arms, and even let him lead. He smiled when he heard which song it was, and listened to the refrain.

If anyone should ever write my life story
For whatever reason there might be
You'd be there between each line of pain and glory
'Cause you're the best thing that ever happened to me
You're the best thing that ever happened to me...

"Don't you ever doubt it again, babe," Hutch said, tightening his hold.

...For every moment that I spent hurting
There was a moment that I spent on just loving you...

"Might take years for you to prove it to me," Starsky responded, looking into Hutch's eyes.

"We're starting over, remember?" Hutch smiled at his partner, all the love he felt shining brightly in his eyes. "We've got forever, babe."

**********

Author's acknowledgments:

"Photographs and Memories" originally performed by J_i_m C_r_o_c_e

"The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me" originally performed by G_l_a_d_y_s K_n_i_g_h_t & T_h_e P_i_p_s

**********

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Next week on Starsky & Hutch:
"A Time to Hurt, A Time to Heal," by Lucy

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