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STRONGER

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Hutch was asleep in his bed. Starsky listened to the sound of his partner’s breathing, deep and regular, in the dark. Thank God. After all Ben Forest had put him through, Hutch was back, safe and sound. During the worst of the hours spent cursing and sweating in Huggy’s upper floor apartment, Starsky had had his doubts that Hutch actually would be able to come back. He needn’t have worried. Hutch was the strongest man he knew.

Even so, for the time being Starsky had no intention of leaving Hutch on his own to battle any ghosts that might remain. He’d been relieved that Hutch hadn’t fought him on that. Hutch had given Starsky permission to camp out on the couch for as long as Starsky felt necessary.

After a few moments, Starsky lost his internal battle. He crept over to the bed to check on Hutch for the dozenth time. He fought another urge to brush back the strands of golden hair that had fallen across the bruise near Hutch’s eye. The ugly purple mark Monk had left on that flawless face was starting to fade.

That which does not kill us makes us stronger.

Had Huggy been the one to say it? Or had the phrase come drifting back to Starsky from his army days as he’d watched Hutch battle the drug that had possessed him - a demon injected into his veins by Ben Forest and his goons. It didn’t matter. Starsky had recited those words like a prayer whenever Hutch had shivered so violently Starsky feared he might lose a tooth. He repeated them when Hutch had emptied his guts of the coffee Starsky had helped him to swallow. He muttered them through gritted teeth when Hutch became violent and threatening - even to Starsky, the one person Hutch claimed to trust above all others.

That which doesn’t kill us... Starsky had assured himself over and over as he’d wrapped his arms around his partner. He’d held tight to Hutch and hope through all the long, agonizing hours.

ooOOoo

“I’m glad to have you back among the living,” Dobey pronounced to Hutch as he and Starsky sat in his office. It was Hutch’s first day back from the ‘flu’ that had kept him out of commission for two weeks. He’d had been nervous about the inevitable meeting despite Starsky’s assurances that everyone - anyone who mattered anyway -- had his back. Miraculously, Internal Affairs had been left completely out of the loop. Hutch knew whom he’d had to thank.

“I just wanted you to know that this, uh,” Dobey cleared his throat. “This incident will go no further than these four walls.”

“Thanks, Cap’n.” Hutch said humbly. It was an astounding breach of protocol for the by-the-book captain. Starsky laid a hand on Hutch’s knee.

“I know what happened wasn’t your fault. And Starsky has assured me that you’re in the clear.”

Dobey paused. His dark complexion paled slightly and his thoughts appeared to have wandered. When he continued, his tone had softened even further. “Look, I know what it took for you to get clean. I didn’t always sit behind this desk, you know. I’ve seen a thing or two myself.”

Before Hutch could respond, Dobey blinked a few times in quick succession and his gruff and authoritative self returned. “Just remember Hutchinson. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.”

Hutch merely nodded.

ooOOoo

After a typically untypical day on the streets, Starsky found himself awake once more, hovering by Hutch’s bedside and studying him as he slept. Just as he had during the day, Starsky couldn’t keep from watching Hutch for any signs of distress. The rhythmic sound of Hutch’s breathing proved as calming as waves lapping the shore. But then the rhythm hesitated briefly. Hutch’s eyes fluttered open before Starsky could turn away to pretend he hadn’t been studying him.

“It’s gonna be okay, Starsk,” Hutch said, his voice roughened by sleep.

Starsky was embarrassed to have been caught, unnerved that Hutch could read him so easily, even in the dark. “Of course it is. I know that,” Starsky said, more sharply than he meant to.

“You don’t have to worry about me. Jeannie and me are over and Forest and Monk are in jail. I got this . . . thing. . . licked.” He pulled himself to sit upright.

“Sure you do.” This time Starsky willed himself to sound more upbeat. “It’s just like everyone says, ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’”

When Hutch didn’t reply for a few long seconds Starsky thought to go back to the couch and end the awkward encounter. But then Hutch spoke again. “No, Starsk, they got that wrong.”

“They did?”

“Sure. It’s not going through pain that makes you stronger. I know that now. It’s the people who have your back that make the difference. The ones who lift you up when you’re down, who believe in you against all odds. The people you can count on. The people who love you,” Hutch looked straight up at Starsky, blue eyes burning like stars. “That’s what keeps you going. That’s what makes you stronger. Now go get some sleep.”

The truth of it stopped Starsky cold. “I never thought of it that way. I guess you’re right.” He suddenly wished he could go back in time to tell his army buddies. Or maybe Jeannie. It might have changed things. Starsky picked his way through the shadows back to the couch. He stretched out and pulled a blanket over him as he heard the sounds of Hutch settling back in bed.

“Good night, Starsk.”

“G’night, Hutch.”

If it really was love that made people stronger, Starsky thought as he dozed off, then he and Hutch just might be invincible.

FIN