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Distant Shores

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CHAPTER V

 

Dr. Samuels was examining her patient. His heart rate and respirations were normal, slowed as they usually were when he lay alone. Sometimes, when Starsky visited, his heart rate stepped up. But Starsky hadn't been in for many days now. The doctor knew he'd called every morning to enquire about Hutch's condition. But he hadn't returned to the hospital. She wasn't surprised. His pain, his fear and indignation had had to come out some way. The anger, directed first at her and the science that seemed to have let him down, had quickly transferred itself. Directing a measure of his rage toward Hutch had been only natural. His behavior was much like that of a bereaved relative who feels great anger toward the recently deceased. Once he'd expressed it, however, his wrath had appalled him. He'd fled the hospital and hadn't returned.

"Hutch. Hutch, wake up," Melissa urged, stroking the smooth cheek firmly. "Come on. You can wake up." His eyes were half-open, but he wasn't looking at anything.

Is there anyone in there? Come on out, Hutch. She bent close, wondering how those vague eyes would appear when focused on something, when they saw and understood. Maybe never...

"You've come this far, Hutch. Why can't you come all the way?"

Continuing her examination, the doctor stroked a probe along the sole of each foot in turn. His reaction was as before, reflexive, no closer to wakefulness. She let the sharp point prick the soft skin. His eyes showed a slight wince and that was all. He didn't pull away or frown. No change.

Melissa turned, stopping short when she caught sight of the figure framed in the doorway. The American stepped forward, light from the window falling on his face.

"David." Melissa put out a hand; he looked on the verge of collapse.

The slightest of smiles acknowledged her concern. "I'm okay. Been having little problem sleepin' s'all." He stood at the foot of the bed, looking much the same as he had that first day, as if he were afraid to really look at his friend here, like this.

Melissa had appraised his condition. His face was haggard, unshaven, his hair a wind-blown tangle. But the shirt he wore was clean and pressed, as if he had made some effort to pull himself together before coming in. The big suede jacket he was unbuttoning made him look very American, a paradox of need and strength combined. There were smudged crescents under the arresting eyes.

No sleep, no solace.

Lids framed in thick black lashes closed briefly as he drew in a steadying breath. "How is he today, Melissa?"

"About the same."

He shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans and moved closer. From opposite sides of the bed, they stood looking down at Hutch together.

"I can't understand."

At first, she wasn't sure he was saying the words to her. They were soft, fragile, like the expression in his eyes. "I don't understand how he can lay there with his eyes open like that... and not see me." He swallowed hard. "Kinda scary."

"I know. It's because movies and television would have us believe a comatose person can suddenly open their eyes and then everything's all right." She couldn't help feeling she'd somehow betrayed this man. Having his trust had become important to her. "I'm sorry."

"Yeah." Brief acknowledgement, acceptance and forgiveness all in one. "Look. They're closing. He's asleep again?"

The doctor nodded. "If we could just hold onto him long enough..."

"It's okay, Melissa. You're not to blame. I... I'm not either. What we can't change we gotta live with." He dredged up a sad smile for her. "Sorry I carried on the way I did last time I was here. And that day in your office. I musta sounded pretty ungrateful, the way I yelled at you."

"It's forgotten." The man's emotions were almost palpable. Melissa found herself thinking about the tortures he must have put himself through this last week, fearing to return, to spend even one more hour seeing Hutch in his present condition, yet riddled with guilt for having been betrayed by his heart. His eyes bore testimony to the anguish it had cost him to walk in this room today.

He was speaking again, voice like an open wound. "I yelled at him, too." His gaze dropped to Hutch's face for a moment; his eyes reflected a twinge of pain, yet the expression turned loving. He spoke more softly, with no trace of embarrassment. "Wasn't the first time, was it, partner?" One graceful hand reached out, then fell useless at his side. The dark blue eyes closed, the sensitive mouth drew into a tense line.

When he looked up, Melissa saw the question in his eyes. He couldn't ask it; everything in him demanded he deny its existence. It was up to the doctor to put it into words.

She found herself hedging, however, creeping up on the issue. "David, you're tearing yourself to pieces. Here, alone like you are, so far from home, you have nothing to think about but Hutch. If he's going to go on as he is, what are you going to do? Can you really stay here indefinitely?"

He answered without looking up, a listless shrug punctuating his words. "Guess I'll eventually have to go back. But it doesn't seem... right. He's been here, all alone, for two years. Eight weeks just doesn't seem like long enough... doesn't seem like I've waited long enough."

"You're tired. You've done more than anyone expected. If you decided to go home, we would continue to take care of things here. And I'd stay in touch with you as much as possible."

"You wouldn't think of it as running out?"

"No." Melissa broke eye contact to regard the quiet man sleeping between them. "No one would."

He nodded, letting himself be absolved. "My rent is paid up until the end of the week. Maybe -- " He broke off.

"David, don't set ultimatums for your hopes." She tried to make the warning gentle.

"I won't. I just said 'maybe.' You never know."

"That's right. You never know."

"Maybe my captain will wire me some more pay." His head canted to one side. "Or maybe I'll just get a job on the Adelaide police force, huh?" The little smile died quickly. He began pulling off the suede coat. "I think I'll stay awhile today."

"That sounds good. You let the nurses know if you need anything."

She turned quickly to leave. The pain radiating from him was filling the room. At the door, she caught just a glimpse of the dark head bent close to the blond one, and slender hands straightening the covers on the bed.

**********

What time is it back home? Starsky compared his wristwatch with the alarm clock by his hotel bed. Both read six o'clock p.m. He counted methodically, backwards, calculating the seventeen-and-a-half-hour difference in time between Adelaide and L.A. That extra half-hour had struck him funny when he'd first heard about it. Crazy Aussies, adding a spare thirty minutes to just one of their time zones. He kept counting, making sure. Ten-thirty, yesterday evening. Yeah. Dobey would still be up.

Starsky picked up the phone and asked for the overseas operator. He waited out the long minutes it took for the call to go through, holding the phone like a lifeline. Finally, the distant ringing stopped and a familiar voice said, "Hello."

The operator informed him there was a call from Australia, and it wasn't hard to visualize Dobey's face as he responded excitedly.

"Starsky? Is that you?"

"Yeah, Cap. It's me."

"How are you? How's Hutch? It's been over a month since we've heard from you."

"I know. There hasn't... been any news. He's... he's not getting any better." He cleared the gruffness out of his throat. "For awhile, things were looking pretty good. But the doctor says he could stay on this... plateau... for a long time."

There was a short silence on the other end of the line. "You sound terrible."

"Guess I do. Captain, looking at him, watching him just lie there -- it's awful. He looks so much like he could wake up any minute, but no matter what I do... he won't." His voice trailed off; he hated the lost sound of it. I don't sound so strong and determined now.

"Starsky." The distant voice was kind, but deliberate. "Why don't you think about coming home?"

"Captain... it's not that easy. Staying here has turned into the hardest thing I've ever done, but leaving... I just don't know." His fingers worried a loose thread on the chenille bedspread. "You need me back at the station?"

Dobey grumbled something unintelligible into the phone, then coughed. "There's work for you to do here. Always will be. You're a good cop and this city needs every one it can get."

Work. That would feel good. Get back on the streets; find something to think about besides... Guilt broke off the vision of life without Hutch. Anyway, what would anything I might accomplish there mean if I knew I hadn't succeeded at the most important job I ever tried?

Dobey was still talking. "But you've got to decide that for yourself."

Starsky closed his eyes, seeing the long road he had traveled in the last two years. Decide for myself? I don't think I've done that once in all this time. Fate just keeps pushin' me along. If there was one thing he'd learned, it was that a man had little or no control of the forces that shaped his life.

Isn't that the ultimate cop out? The ironic voice of his conscience niggled at him. It's easy to say you have no choice. But what's hardest of all is to take everything fate dishes out and then face up to making the ultimate decision it presents.

"I know. But to just leave him here, all alone..."

"Listen, son. I know the doctor there said it was too difficult to bring him back here, but maybe if you talked to some nursing homes here, you could work something out. I don't like to think of Hutch all the way in Australia, either."

The rumble of kindness in the low voice soothed, even over the vast distance. "Yeah. Maybe that's a possibility. Dr. Samuels has been talking to me about going home, too. I feel like I'd be abandoning Hutch, but if he hasn't known I've been here anyway..."

"Starsky, don't think of it that way. You're alive, you've got to go on living. What good can you do Hutch beating yourself up over not getting through to him? Back here, you can be the cop he'd want you to be. Think about it."

"I will. I am. I'm getting kinda broke anyway. Maybe I'll check out of my hotel at the end of the week."

"Okay. You let me know when you're coming home. Just call and I'll meet you at the airport."

Saying it like that sounded so final, so certain. Yet it was, Starsky now knew, the only answer. "Thanks, Captain. I... feel better now that we've talked."

"Any time." The older man's patience was a bulwark. "You know where to reach me."

"Yeah. Well, this is costin' me a fortune. Guess I'd better go for now."

Dobey managed a chuckle. "Guess so. Take it easy, Starsky."

"Bye, Cap."

Starsky put the phone down. He wanted very much to be with Hutch, but he sat where he was for a long time. He thought of home: my apartment, my car. The job I do... That's my life. Dobey's right. Hutch would want me to live my life, to go back to work. That's the one thing that always gave us the answers to the questions, that gave us the meaning we were searching for. He sighed, the resolve wrapping itself around his mind like an old, worn quilt.

********

 

 

Starsky sat in silence for a long time. The nurses had left him alone with Hutch. Alone for our last few minutes together...

He reached over to switch off the radio. The music was getting on his nerves, the jangling, up-beat tunes too harsh for his mood. Then Starsky put out a hand to touch his sleeping friend once more.

He smoothed the silken hair back from the broad forehead and let his fingertips trace the pale features. His hand did not shake as he caressed the slack cheek, did not tremble as his fingers trailed down the strong neck to the shoulder. It was a gesture of simple comfort, of swelling love. Starsky knew his hand would retain the feel of the warmth of the familiar body; he had to hope that Hutch would feel and somehow understand his farewell.

An incredible sense of desolation filled him. Starsky swallowed hard, unable to quell it. The futility of the past weeks weighed him down. No matter how hard he tried to rationalize, he could not help feeling as if he were deserting Hutch. Yet the weeks of sitting here had cost him. He had done all he could. He yielded to weariness and reason. He could not sit at this bedside any longer. One day, he would return. Perhaps he could somehow figure out a way to bring Hutch, as he was, home; if not, he would visit this distant place as often as he could. For now, he had to leave Hutch in the care of Melissa Samuels and the devoted nurses.

"I'm sorry, buddy." His own raw whisper disturbed the silence of the room. "I have to go now. You know I don't want to." Starsky blinked and his eyes brimmed over. "You know I'll keep thinkin' about you."

The words seemed so inadequate. He wanted to say it right, this goodbye, even though Hutch was almost certainly incapable of hearing or understanding. Starsky wiped at his eyes with an impatient fist. He did not intend to leave like this. If Hutch sensed anything, Starsky did not want their last moments together to be filled with pain. Only tenderness now. Only love.

He stood and leaned over, briefly pressing Hutch's lips with his own. He kissed the closed eyelids and, brushing the hair back from one ear, softly whispered a farewell admonition. "Sleep well."

He knew he should turn away then, make the break clean, get it over with... but he just couldn't.

Starsky sat down again, taking Hutch's hand in both his own. He held on tight, never wanting to let go. But I have to let go. He was trembling now, grieving already. Miss you so much, babe.

Why couldn't you wake up for me, Hutch? You need to wake up, get on with life. And I need you.

His leaving seemed so damned unfair. He would be lonely, yes, but he could return to a productive life. No matter how empty it was, he'd have more in his life than Hutch would once he was gone. He had to remind himself that it surely didn't seem that way to Hutch.

I should stop attributing real feelings and reactions to him, as if he's aware of all that's going on. He isn't really here, maybe never was... But Hutch was alive, and Starsky couldn't act like he was anything less.

If only I could leave you something of me, of mine. A ray of wintry light caught on the bands he wore on his left pinky. Releasing his hold on Hutch's hand, Starsky contemplated the rings. They had been there so long they had become almost a part of him. If he gave them to Hutch, it would be like leaving a portion of himself with his partner. Starsky pulled and twisted until the rings slipped off.

He lifted Hutch's hand, looking at the long fingers. The strength, the tenderness of Hutch's capable hands filled his memory. Shooting that big cannon of a gun, gripped around the steering wheel in a high-speed chase, strumming the singing strings of his guitar... and touching Starsky -- comforting hands, cherishing... loving.

Starsky sighed deeply. The two rings he held looked mismatched, two different styles, two different metals, not made for each other at all. But they had been together so long they had become a joined set. He slipped the two of them together onto the little finger of Hutch's hand. Surprised, he saw that the pale fingers were so slim now that the rings fit easily, as if made for him. He replaced the hand at Hutch's side, his fingertips brushing the gold and silver in an adieu.

Something of his desolation lifted with the gesture, leaving only weariness behind. Starsky placed his hand on Hutch's chest, holding to the soft throb of the beating heart. Its steadiness calmed him, its continuance reassured. His trembling gone, Starsky felt resolute, accepting.

He checked his watch. Time to go. He stood, leaning close one last time.

"Hutch, I love you. Always. Remember that, partner." He bent to touch his lips to Hutch's forehead and turned away.

At the door, he hesitated, then gave in to the temptation to glance back. Hutch lay as he had, deeply asleep, eyes closed as if in true slumber. He was pale against the white sheets, hair light gold on the pillow, Starsky's rings a warm glint on his finger. In his heart, Starsky would always carry the memory of Hutch's beauty and grace, but he did not look like the man Starsky loved. He was a ghost of that man, only a shell, slender and grave-faced, unmoving and silent. Starsky wondered why he hadn't seen it before.

Maybe I wouldn't let myself. They do say love is blind...

It hurt to see the still shape marred by the intrusion of the tubes that fed him and eliminated his wastes. Still, a part of him remained beautiful, unblemished despite the sleep that would not relinquish him. Starsky looked for a long moment, adding this final picture to his memories. Then he opened the door and escaped the confines of the quiet room.

Dr. Samuels stood there in the hall. He found he couldn't meet her eyes, even when she moved in close and took his arm.

"David?"

He wet his dry lips. "I'm okay, Melissa." He looked at her. "I want to thank you. For everything. And please -- "

"You don't have to ask. We'll take good care of him. I promise." She paused. "You'll keep in touch?"

He nodded. His voice seemed to be failing him. "Gotta go." Her hand stayed on his arm, and he glanced back into her compassionate face.

A slight smile, mingling friendship and pity, came to the pretty mouth. "Take care of yourself, David. I'm glad you found him." Before he could reply, she reached on tiptoe to kiss his face.

The gesture surprised Starsky. Response failed him. It had all been said. He patted her awkwardly and hurried down the hall.

***********

***

His mind summoned strength for thought, for recognition. It reached out to the warmth, to the love that surrounded him so protectively. Unable to show that he understood, he felt, he knew, he let hope take him. He wasn't alone, the world held one more person, and suddenly it was safe. Someone waited nearby, outside the dark

Someone...

named...

Starsky.

He'd been reaching for what must have been eons. What had been waiting there so long seemed to have moved away now. The pang of sudden emptiness confused him more than ever. He had tried so hard to move, to respond to Starsky and the warmth that had called to him. Now, he sensed that his chance was gone. It was too late.

He tried to fight the overwhelming panic but it weighed him down. He cursed the dark -- he was so damned tired of it. It had kept him prisoner too long. It had kept him from Starsky, and he sensed how sad that had made his friend. The gentle presence that meant 'Starsky' so often had seemed awkward with concern and tension. He knew he must be very, very sick if Starsky were so upset. He didn't mean to worry him. He wanted so badly to reach out, to tell his friend that he knew he was there, but he lay immobile, locked in a dream-world from which he could not awaken. His mind was powerless to direct his body's functions.

Now he sensed the outer quiet that had descended. The music was gone; the friendly voice no longer spoke to him. His ears missed the comforting words, the constant chatter, the familiar slurred pronunciations. He wanted to cry from frustration, from the loneliness of his solitary universe.

The touches were gone, too. The gentleness, the warmth of fingertips and lips that had wakened him to love but not to light had ceased and left him bereft. If only he could have reached out and squeezed the hand that had held his. He'd tried so long, so hard. It seemed so simple a thing to do. Just like this...

He knew his hand moved that time. His fingers curled and tightened on the bedcovers. He repeated the gesture, this time sensing something unfamiliar on his hand... on his little finger. He tried, but his fingers were becoming tingly, little shocks of awakening nerves making him forget what he'd been trying to do. He drew the shreds of his concentration together, making one more effort to open his eyes.

The assault of harsh, bright light forced them immediately closed again.

Once more. I know I can do it.

***

It took a moment to focus, but lines and shapes and colors eventually settled into the configuration of recognizable walls and furniture. Yet the room itself was unfamiliar. He had never seen it before.

And he was alone.

Hutch's arm felt incredibly heavy to him. He couldn't even lift it to see his watch.

What time is it? Where am I?

In confusion, he tried to make his mind slow down enough to figure out what was going on. He had thought that if he opened his eyes, he would find Starsky...

Hutch sighed brokenly. He'd tried so hard to respond, to show he heard and wanted to come back. Now, he was too late. From being alone in the dark, he was alone in the light, alone in this strange room.

He lay still, breathing hard, trying to concentrate, to get hold of his reeling emotions. Weak and disoriented, he could do nothing. His eyelids were growing heavy. But he had to stay awake. He fought the weakness desperately, but it was nearly too much for him.

The sound of a door opening tugged at his waning attention. Into his fuzzy field of vision came a figure. It was a woman in white, wearing a white cap.

She had been humming to herself, but stopped as she approached the bed. The sound of running water came to Hutch's ears, along with a rustling, as if of cloth being arranged or folded.

"Okay now, dear. Time for your bath."

Her voice was light, its tone carrying the indefinable accent he knew he had heard before. Unfamiliar, yet known...

His arm was lifted, bathed with warm water. He tried to look up, to make his mind understand what was going on. The water helped to stimulate his senses. As her hand touched his, he concentrated and clasped weakly at her fingers.

Her chatter stopped, his arm was laid down. A face framed in blonde hair leaned into his vision. "Joey -- I mean, Hutch? Come on, love. Squeeze my hand again."

It was very important, the most important thing he'd ever tried to do. Hutch gathered his strength and squeezed.

The woman gasped. Her wet hand touched his face, tried to turn his gaze up to meet hers. But Hutch didn't want to see her. The person he wanted to see was Starsky. He looked around the room, finally catching sight of a chair pulled close to the bedside. Starsky must have sat there, all those hours when he was talking to him. The chair was empty and Hutch groaned in frustration, his head tossing from side to side.

She was speaking to him, meaningless words that he couldn't focus on. He was frantic, scared to death.

"All right.. it's all right... You're going to be fine. I'll be right back." She patted his shoulder briefly and left him alone again.

Hutch wanted to weep, but whether from disappointment or relief, he did not know.

***********

Dr. Samuels hurried through the long corridors of the nursing home, spurred to haste by the excited call from Mary Brownwell. The usually unflappable nurse had been stammering, trying to tell her about the sudden change in their coma patient. It seemed impossible. Melissa had looked in on him for just a moment after Starsky had left, and he had been the same.

Arriving at his door, she entered at once. Mary was speaking loudly, calling his name. The nurse looked up as she approached. "He seems really upset. I can't get through to him."

Melissa bent over him, pressing her stethoscope to his chest. His heart was thudding so fast she could barely count it. Respiration was up, too. She reached to touch his cheek, to still the restless, feeble movement of his head on the pillow. With a little groan, he attempted to shy away.

"Hutch. Hutch, listen." The eyes were moving, clear blue darting back and forth. "That's right. Wake up. That's good. Look at me." He responded to her tone, following her command, eyes finding and focusing on her face. "Squeeze my hand. Hutch? Come on. Squeeze my hand."

The lax fingers she held pressed weakly against her own, clung. His eyes narrowed in the effort of concentration.

"Good boy. You did it. That's good, Hutch." She smiled and patted his cheek again.

His gaze had wandered, though. She spoke to him, but couldn't call him back this time. His eyes seemed to be searching, seeking to understand where he was and what was going on around him.

************

Never saw this place before. Those women, who are they? A hanging, glittering, fascinatingly shiny something caught his attention. He watched it a moment, then his eyes moved on, still searching.

The woman was speaking again, touching him more, a probing, examining touch he tried to ignore. It hurt to have his legs flexed that way.

Why is she pinching? He flinched away with a soft whimper.

"Okay. Okay. You're here, Hutch. Look at me, Hutch."

He didn't want to see her. Her words didn't matter, he was tuning them out. Trying to understand was impossible. There was an ache building deep inside, a need, a want that could not be expressed.

Where's Starsky? The question was there, in his head, but he didn't know how to make it come out. What's gone wrong? The frustration and the fear were greater than any he had ever felt. Where... where is Starsky?

***********

"Oh my God." Melissa watched as a single tear escaped from the corner of one blue eye and trembled on her patient's cheek. His glistening eyes were fastened on the empty chair where David used to sit. "Mary! Call security at the airport. They must stop Lieutenant Starsky and get him back here, right now! Hurry, give them his description. His flight to Sydney leaves in half an hour!"

She'd kept her eyes on Hutch. He seemed to have heard and perhaps understood the name she had spoken. She touched the worried face. "You want to see your friend David, Hutch? Do you remember David Starsky?"

His eyes blinked, once again darting to search the room, then returning to watch the bedside chair. The only answer Melissa received was an anguished sigh, but the blue eyes were sparkling, clear-seeing.

She closed her own eyes, uttering a thankful prayer. At last.

**********

Starsky trudged through the air terminal, wrapping himself in an emotional fog. He kept his head down, not wishing to encounter the smiling, expectant faces of other travelers. The long flight home loomed before him. He felt more depressed than he ever had, more lonely for Hutch than at any time during the last two years.

"Excuse me, mate."

The bulky form of a uniformed security guard blocked his path. Starsky looked up. "What do you want?"

"David Starsky, American police?" The man glanced at a slip of paper in his hand.

"Huh? Yeah, that's me. What's the matter? I got a plane to catch."

"I'm sorry, sir. We received a call from Pulteney Nursing Home. Dr. Melissa Samuels requests you return there immediately."

Starsky stood staring at the guard for a moment, gulping in consternation. "I don't understand. Did she say...?"

"I don't have any message, mate. Just to get you to the hospital."

Starsky felt a flush of heat sweep over him, followed by a wave of cold apprehension. Afraid to hope for good news, yet trying to rationalize that nothing very bad could have happened in so short a time, he looked around wildly for a moment. Get back to the hospital... find a cab...

The security guard turned him back toward the entrance with a hand at his elbow. "There's a car waiting for you, sir. Staff security."

Starsky mumbled his thanks and took off in the direction of the exit. When he pushed through the door, another security guard caught his attention and motioned him toward the idling automobile.

"I'm Lieutenant Starsky."

"Righto." His bag was taken and Starsky, feeling bewildered, got into the vehicle.

The ride back to the nursing home seemed interminable. Eyes closed, Starsky leaned back against the leather upholstery, his heart pounding in counterpoint to the rattling engine. As the car lurched to a stop, Starsky peered out the fogged window at the hospital façade. Wiping sweaty hands on his pantlegs, he opened the door. Melissa stood in the doorway of the building, her sweater pulled tight against the cold. She was waving at him, motioning urgently. Grabbing his suitcase, Starsky bolted from the car.

He took the steps two at a time. "What?"

Melissa clutched at his forearms. "Thank God they caught you before the plane left! He's awake!"

"God -- how? When? You mean it?"

"Just a few minutes ago. Mary went in and began bathing him and he was looking at her. He squeezed her hand."

Starsky's knees had turned to Jell-o. "He's awake?"

Melissa nodded, laughter in her eyes. "That's what I said. He's really regaining consciousness. He opened his eyes, he focused -- "

"Did he say anything?" Starsky finally remembered to step through the doorway. Melissa came with him.

Her hand found one of his. "No. He's very weak, David. It's been two years."

"Oh." His stomach did a flip-flop. "I thought -- "

"Listen to me. This is a real step forward. No, he isn't speaking yet. I don't even think he can actually understand much of what we're saying to him. But he is able to respond. When I asked him to squeeze my hand, he did it. He pulled away when I pinched his arm. He looked all round the room, at the plants -- he watched the mobile."

Starsky hung on to her every word, trying to get the new information to compute. He'd had to make himself understand that Hutch opening his eyes didn't mean he was awakening. It was hard to let go of that idea, now. He had been forced to accept the probability that Hutch would never come around. Though it was the thing Starsky wanted most in the world, he had trouble believing it now.

"How could it happen, so sudden, I mean? When I was in with him today, he wasn't aware at all. He didn't even know I was there."

"I think he did know." Melissa nudged him in the direction of the elevator. "He heard you. You called him back. It may have taken him awhile to show his response, but he did it. David, he was looking all around that room for you!"

"For me?" Starsky's voice sounded funny to him, all breathy and kind of high-pitched. But maybe that was because of the loud roaring in his ears. "How do you know?"

"He kept looking at the chair where you sat. His eyes were searching and when he didn't find you, he became very upset. And when I said your name, told him we were going to bring you back, he calmed. He understood your name. David, he's going to come back."

"Hutch..." Starsky's eyes went to the slow-changing numbers that indicated their progress upward in the elevator. Adrenalin began racing through his system, making him light-headed. Melissa was still speaking, talking of neurological work-ups and physical examinations, but he didn't listen. The only words he heard were the ones that kept repeating over and over in his mind.

He's awake. Hutch is awake.

As the elevator door slid open, Starsky was suddenly conscious of the enormous responsibility that lay ahead, getting Hutch well, getting him through the changes he'd discover when he understood he had lost two whole years of his life.

"Don't look so worried," Melissa chided him, laughing. "The worst is over. He's got a lot of recovering to do, both physically and mentally. And emotionally. But I know you'll be able to help him."

They were at Hutch's door. Starsky couldn't even remember getting out of the elevator. He stopped, feeling scared. Then realization swept over him again, stronger than ever. He's awake! Hutch was in there, really there, now. And he needed Starsky now more than ever.

Starsky drew in a deep breath and shouldered through the door.

The room was different. Forever changed. Instead of a dismal sickroom, enveloped in winter's haze, it was full of sunshine, full of the living, breathing wide-awake presence of Hutch.

His eyes were open, huge and beseeching and blue. And they didn't wander, unfocused and unseeing. They were alert, looking around. At the sound of the door, they swept towards him. So long missed, so well-remembered, Hutch's eyes locked with Starsky's own as he entered. They lit with trust and pleasure as they rested on him, recognized him.

Starsky was drawn by their clarity. His own heart was waking, too, rousing from the uneasy sleep -- a coma of his own -- he had endured while waiting for this moment.

"Hutch," he breathed.

The eyes opened even wider, anxious with longing. Starsky move quickly, needing to be close to him, knowing Hutch needed the closeness, too.

As he approached, one hand, ever so slightly, lifted from the mattress, its motion shaky, needful, endearing.

"God, Hutch..." Knees giving out, Starsky sat on the edge of the bed. Their hands found each other. Hutch's fingers felt warm, and so good twining around his on their own. Overcome, Starsky gripped them tightly, then tried to ease off, afraid too much pressure would hurt Hutch. He blinked rapidly, laughing, crying, feeling every emotion there was.

He swallowed, clearing his throat. "Hi, buddy. Welcome back."

Hutch's lips trembled as they opened. His eyes registered confusion. Starsky could see the disorientation and weakness frightened him. "Hey, now. Take it easy. Everything's gonna be all right. You're gonna be fine." His free hand soothed, resting alongside Hutch's face, fingers circling at his temple. "I'm here. I'm not going anywhere. Okay?"

Hutch sighed, relaxed. The reaction seemed miraculous to Starsky. Then Hutch's mouth curved into a brief smile and his eyes lost their anxious expression. They stayed focused on Starsky as Melissa, standing on the other side of the bed, began examining him.

The procedure seemed to disturb him. He frowned, giving a slight grunt of disapproval, and looked as if he'd like to pull away from the doctor's probing hands.

Starsky chuckled out loud. "Look at you. Worst patient in the world." He beamed up at Melissa, joy in his heart. Her own smile was reflected delight.

She finished as Hutch's eyes began to lose their flow and his lids drooped. "Hutch? Open your eyes." He responded to her voice, obviously trying hard to fight weakness and fatigue.

"Hutch. Look at me." Starsky was filled with wonder, seeing the effort his partner was putting forth. "That's good. So good."

"I think it's time to let him rest now," Melissa spoke up. "He's come a long way, and he'll need to sleep."

"Sleep?" Starsky questioned, without taking his eyes from Hutch. He had the uneasy feeling that Hutch might slip away again, drift back under the spell of the coma.

"Don't worry." Melissa finished making notes on his chart. "You stay with him. His waking periods will become longer soon."

"Okay." He patted the hand lying palm up on the bed. The fingers feebly reached for his, and Starsky let his hand stay, grateful to be able to give the comfort Hutch sought. He was content to sit there on the side of the bed, feeling so close to him. He held Hutch's hand while he slept, confident the slumber -- this time -- would be brief.