The Best Thing
by Candy Apple

SHSVS, Episode 1, Part 3

Back to Part 2

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

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

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

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

"You're getting stronger every day."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Harry was cooking."

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

"I'll be careful, Starsk."

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

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

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

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

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

"I'm sorry, I don't—"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flores was fucking perfect.

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

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

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

But now it was out on the streets with Flores.

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

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

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

"I'm awake," Starsky said.

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

"How'd it go?" Starsky asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You'll get back there."

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

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

"She?" Starsky raised an eyebrow.

"Dr. Janet Fielding. Minnie recommended her."

"How does Minnie know her?" Starsky frowned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"In your dreams, maybe."

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

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

"You're on."

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

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

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

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

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

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

"More than a bit. I was hopeless."

"What changed, do you think?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Your car?" She raised her eyebrows inquisitively.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I thought we said five."

"Yeah, right."

"Plants glad to see ya?" Starsky joked.

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

"Good to be home, huh?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"In your dreams."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What was that all about?"

"What?"

"Asking about Flores?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Promise you'll call?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Be careful," Starsky responded tiredly.

"Always."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You want to try?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What's this about, Doc?"

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

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

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

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

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

"I gotta be realistic."

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

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

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

"Am I too weak to do that?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I only charge penalty fees to quitters."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"So, is this an official visit?"

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

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

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

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

"No—why?"

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

"The gym?" Starsky asked, confused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A partner who was healthy and whole.

A partner Hutch liked.

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

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

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

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

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

Hutch was working out with his partner.

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

On to Part 4

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