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."

On to Part 2

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