The Best Thing
by Candy Apple

SHSVS, Episode 1, Part 2

Back to Part 1

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. Picnic

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."

On to Part 3

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