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Distant Shores

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CHAPTER II

 

The days began to run together in a blur of activity. Starsky watched Hutch's progress, delighted with every small success, worried about each tiny setback. Fortunately, there were not too many of those, although his advances seemed to come slowly to the anxious partner waiting for him. Starsky dreamed of a day when the two of them would emerge from the hospital and, side by side, get on with their lives again.

He had awakened late this morning, feeling tired from the grueling routine of spending so many hours at the hospital. He'd tried to hurry, but couldn't get moving. His throat felt sore and his muscles were achy. He put those feelings aside, though, dressing hastily and jumping into a cab without eating breakfast. He knew that unless he was there, the nurses had a hard time getting through to Hutch.

It was a little after nine when he arrived at Hutch's room. He pushed open the door and stood just watching for a moment. Mary had Hutch in his wheelchair over by the basin. She was rubbing soap into a wet washcloth, talking to him about getting washed and dressed for the day. Hutch took the cloth in his hand, but didn't seem to want to put forth the effort to do what was expected of him.

"You know how to wash your face," Mary told him gently. "Listen, Hutch. David is coming soon. You want to be all ready for him, don't you? Come on now. Get ready and wash your face."

As Starsky watched, Hutch lifted the cloth awkwardly to his face, rubbing it without much coordination across his features. Mary took it back, rinsed it out and directed him to get the suds off his cheeks. Starsky felt a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth as he watched the procedure; Hutch, totally serious, trying to do something he had taken for granted before, now having to concentrate to accomplish the desired results. But he was doing it.

Mary was rubbing more soap into the cloth. "Here, Hutch. Wash your arms."

Hutch did as she asked, or tried to. The cloth was rubbed lightly along his forearms; forgetting his upper arms and shoulders, he looked up and handed back the cloth.

"Good enough," Mary encouraged. "You're doing fine today. David's going to be surprised..." She looked up then and caught sight of him in the doorway. "Look, Hutch."

 

The blond turned, eyes curious. When he saw Starsky, he beamed. The look went to the bottom of Starsky's heart, taking him back to the old days. A feeling of nostalgia, sadness for what had been lost and hope for what could still be regained, blurred his vision. He cleared the gruffness from his throat and walked over.

"Mornin', partner." He reached out, fingers catching at the flyaway blond hair. Hutch's eyes were alight, eager. If you could only say good morning to me... Starsky tried to quell the ache in his chest. Soon... Don't be so impatient. "Ready to start a new day?"

Half an hour later, with Mary's help, Hutch was ready for his breakfast. He sat up in the wheelchair, wearing a pajama top, a blanket tucked around his waist to keep his legs warm. Starsky moved the chair over to the table and brought the tray when it was delivered by an orderly. Mary, telling him to call if they needed anything, left to see to her other duties.

"Look, you've got some toast this morning," Starsky said, uncovering the plate. It was unbuttered; Melissa was still concerned about the nausea that had been troubling him. The broth they'd started a couple of days ago had made Hutch sick; they'd cut back to clear juices and tea for another day or so, adding jello yesterday and trying toast this morning. It was wheat bread, lightly toasted. Hutch looked at it for a moment. "Go ahead. You can pick it up and eat it." Starsky looked him in the eye.

Hutch's fingers had a little trouble holding onto the toast, but he brought it to his lips, biting off a tiny portion. He chewed slowly, rather thoughtfully, and Starsky watched. I knew it would be like this, but I didn't know how bad it would feel to watch him this way...

Hutch looked up at him, eyes asking for his approval. Starsky swallowed his pain and grinned, telling him how well he was doing. Hutch nodded, as if proud of himself, and took another bite. He soon finished all of his breakfast, and didn't seem to have any trouble keeping it down. The episodes of nausea had drained Hutch of what little strength he'd had. He'd ended up trembling, tears in his eyes, leaning weakly in Starsky's arms. He'd protested when the nurses had tried to put the feeding tube back, though. That old determination had come into his eyes. He seemed to realize that he'd have to put up with feeling sick if he wanted to get rid of the tube for good.

Starsky wanted that, too, but he'd worried about Hutch getting enough nourishment. Melissa had told him that if they had to, they could start an IV to provide some support for him, since he so obviously didn't want to be tube fed. She'd also pointed out what a good sign his expressing himself had been. 'That friend of yours wants to get well, David. You should be proud of him.'

So the feeding tube was gone; only one more medical intrusion remained. The catheter seemed to bother Hutch at times. Starsky had seen him flinch if the tubing was moved too abruptly when he was being dressed or lifted. Melissa had explained that retraining Hutch's bladder would take time. They had started already, by clamping the catheter for an hour in the morning and evening, to let the bladder gradually become accustomed to being full again. Each day they clamped it for a little longer. Starsky could see that at the end of the prescribed time, Hutch was getting uncomfortable; he supposed that meant the process was working. He'd not thought much about the thing while Hutch had been comatose, now it seemed an embarrassment to him, an invasion of Hutch's privacy. It was necessary, of course, but he remembered from when he'd been in the hospital: it hurt.

"How are we feeling today?"

Starsky looked up and Hutch followed his gaze. It was Melissa, smiling at him, noting the empty breakfast dishes on the tray.

"You look like you're doing well, Hutch." Her eyes went back to Starsky, standing beside the wheelchair. "And how about you, David? You look a bit tired this morning."

Starsky swallowed, and was abruptly reminded of his sore throat. He rubbed at his neck absently. "I'm hanging in there."

Melissa came over to him, reaching to lay a hand on his forehead. "You feel a little warm. Coming down with a cold, perhaps?"

"I'm okay." Starsky shrugged off her concern. I'm not the one who needs the doctor.

"David, if you are catching cold, you'll have to be careful of Hutch. His resistance is very low."

Starsky sighed. "It's just a little sore throat. There's a draft in my hotel room. But if you want to check me out, I guess that would be okay."

"Come down to my office later this afternoon," Melissa answered. She then proceeded to examine Hutch, and was obviously pleased when she could announce that his progress was continuing. "Take him down to physical therapy, David. You're ready to get to work, aren't you, Hutch?"

The blue eyes moved from her face to that of his partner. Starsky met the gaze, smiling encouragement. "Tell her sure you are, buddy." Hutch's eyes stayed on him, though. "Yeah, he's ready, but he's just being quiet about it as usual." He ruffled the blond hair, then guided the chair past the doctor and out the door.

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

Two hours later, Starsky made his way to Melissa's office. Hutch had had a good session in the therapy room, now he lay sleeping in his bed. Starsky felt tired too. Maybe he was getting sick. He felt the need to talk to the doctor, not about his own health, but about his feelings concerning Hutch. Melissa was out on rounds, her secretary said. She invited him to go on into the office and wait, however. Inside, he slumped into a chair, leaning over on the desk to rest his head on folded arms.

He wasn't sure how to begin. Don't think I've ever been so confused. I'm happy. He's doing so well. But it's so painful to see him have to try so hard. And the way he looks at me... that's strange because it kinda scares me. He's never needed me like this before... am I up to the responsibility? I like it, like knowing he wants to work so hard for me, but what if I'm not there, someday? I want him to do it for Hutch. Maybe that's why it hurts so bad. I want to have Hutch back again, and I'm scared that'll never happen. Has he changed -- have I changed? I love him, but it feels... different. Maybe he can't love me the way he did before... Are we ever going to get back to what we once had? Damn -- there must be something wrong with me for even thinking along those lines right now. Can't I be satisfied with what we've got, what we're gaining every day?

"David." Melissa was standing beside him, eyes full of concern. "What's wrong? You look terrible."

Starsky sat up and ran a hand over his face. "I don't know, Melissa. I'm just... tired."

Instead of going to sit behind her desk, Melissa pulled up the other chair and sat facing him. "This is a terrible strain, isn't it? It must be almost as upsetting as when Hutch wasn't responding at all."

He looked away, made uncomfortable by her coming so close to the truth. He felt inadequate, selfish. A gentle hand, surprisingly comforting, came to rest on his shoulder. Starsky still couldn't say anything; he felt that if he did, he might start crying.

"David. It's all right. I understand." The woman's hand patted him, staying where it was. It occurred to him that it had been a long time since someone had reached out to him. The ache in his throat, in his heart, got worse. "I've seen patients do this before. They seem to... fixate on one person. It's usually their doctor. They look to that person to explain the world to them, to give them approval, to make their decisions for them. It's like... they're in the womb, and that one person is the first one they've met they can trust. I've been the one they meet in the womb, and it's a terrible, complex responsibility. But I have the training, the experience... you don't. It's very hard on you, and it's made more difficult because you remember all the things Hutch used to be able to do on his own. He's like a child -- and I know how it hurts to see a grown-up reduced to this. But David, he'll grow out of this stage. It won't always be this way. We're going to bring him back, as far as he can come."

"As far as...?" Starsky couldn't make himself complete the thought.

"You're worrying too much. Don't see every victory as if it might be the last. Listen to what I'm telling you. In a way, for Hutch, you being the one he trusts is good. Because you do remember the way he used to be, you can make demands of him that we can't, you can put it all in perspective for him. But if you falter, if your feelings get in the way -- and you can't help it if they do -- or if you get tired or sick, you're worried that he'll slide back, that without you, he won't be able to try anymore."

Starsky nodded, feeling miserable. "He's depending on me. I want him to be able to..."

"He can." The hand on his shoulder squeezed. She smiled when he managed to meet her eyes. "Tell me what you want to do. Do you think you'd feel better if you took a break, if you gradually let him depend on me and the nurses more?"

"I might, but that's not really what I want. I want to be the one who's there to help him." He met the doctor's steady gaze, knowing his deepest feelings were clearly written on his face. "But what if...? I do feel like I might be catching something. Do you think it would hurt Hutch's progress if I couldn't be here all the time? I wouldn't want to give him my germs or anything."

Melissa stood, going to get a thermometer. She gave it to Starsky to place under his tongue, not speaking until he handed it back.

"You are running a little temp." She produced a tongue depressor and light to look into his throat, then listened to his chest with her stethoscope. "I'm going to prescribe an antibiotic. With the hours you've been keeping and this weather, it's no wonder you've caught a little bug. It's nothing serious, though. It you feel good enough to be here, you can wear a mask to keep your germs away from Hutch. And if you feel sick enough to spend a day or two in bed, he'll still be alright. It might give him the push he needs to work harder on his own. If he misses you, we'll install a telephone in his room and you can talk to him."

Starsky grinned, taking some solace from her diagnosis and no-nonsense approach. "You've got an answer for everything, don't you?"

"That's what they pay me for, Lieutenant." She put away the equipment, wrote out a prescription, then turned back to him. "So, are you going to listen to your doctor's advice and stop worrying?"

"Yes, ma'am, I'll try." Starsky took the slip of paper she handed him.

"Good. Now go down to the pharmacy and get that filled, then see to it that you get some lunch before you go back up to Hutch's room."

Starsky chuckled and Melissa raised a questioning eyebrow. "Oh, nothing," he smiled. "You just remind me of our Captain, that's all."

*********

Hutch had fallen into a deep sleep. It had felt so good to surrender to the physical and mental fatigue and slip under the waves of forgetfulness. In his bed, under the soft covers, he was warm, untroubled, and sleep came easily. For several hours, he floated contentedly in gentle slumber.

Then, he became restless again. Feelings began to seep toward the surface, disturbing his repose. The fears that seemed unimportant by daylight crept back over him in the darkened room, and the suffocating sense of being alone drew him back toward wakefulness. But he couldn't wake. He was held under, pulled down by the weight of strangers' hands.

Gonna kill me...! A scream of terror tried to claw its way out of him; he clenched his jaw to hold it back. He wrestled with the unseen enemies, thrashing to escape the fate they planned for him. Starsky! Help me! Find me... Yet he knew it was no use to cry out. He was alone... they'd taken him somewhere very far away... never find me...

Pain crashed into his skull, but he fought the blackness. Gotta hang on... don't... want to die... not yet...Yet no matter how he struggled, the fear grew and grew, winning out over his failing strength. It became a living thing, existing independently, consuming him, spitting him out to die. No more... no more... please. I want to come back...

He cried out in agony, finally breaking free of the nightmare. It was dark in the room, and he hated it that way. He needed light to banish the terror. The door creaked and he gasped, frightened by the sudden sound.

Someone came in, pushing the door open, light flooding the room.

Starsky? Hutch tried to sit up, to reach for him, but he fell back.

"Anything wrong, dear?"

It wasn't Starsky. Hutch turned away from the stranger who approached his bed. She patted his covers a moment, then turned to leave. He moaned, catching her attention at the door.

"What's wrong?" She paused a moment, then adjusted the light at the switch on the wall. "How's that, dear?"

Hutch swallowed, relieved she'd turned up the light, yet still feeling frightened, incomplete and alone.

She quietly exited and he did not mourn her leaving. She wasn't the one he needed. Hutch sighed, bringing a hand up to rub over his face. He should sleep some more, he was still so tired. But he couldn't now. The dream had been so terrifying... Yet now he could not recapture its precise images. All that remained was the all-pervading sense of horror.

He tried to shake off the fear. He pushed himself up on his elbows, intending to take stock of his situation. The sudden movement made him dizzy, and he paused a moment, wondering why. He looked down at himself. White bedcovers were all he could see. Slowly, hand shaking for some reason, he pulled the blankets down.

Damn... I'm so thin. How...? He felt down along his side and stomach, feeling protruding ribs under the light shirt he was wearing. His hand fell to his naked thigh, touching soft flesh where there had once been firm muscle. So pale... And what's this? The attached tubing he could see unnerved him.

He couldn't support himself anymore, half sitting in the bed. He dropped back against the mattress, a profound fear settling in his belly. It had been there, surrounding him, so often, yet it had remained undefined. Now the feeling was coming over him that something was terribly wrong, that he was very ill. What's going on? He should know, he thought, filling with anxiety.

A chill swept over him, but he couldn't make his trembling hand pull the covers back. He heaved a sigh of frustration, hardly noticing that the door had been opened once again.

"Hey, babe." The soothing, concerned voice caught his attention. Hutch looked up, losing himself in Starsky's gaze. "You're all uncovered -- you do this?" Gentle hands pulled the blankets up over his shoulders. A warm weight settled beside him on the bed. Hutch reached to grasp Starsky's wrist; he hung on a little desperately.

"I'm here. Don't worry." Compassionate fingers brushed the hair back from his eyes. "You must've had a bad dream again. Is that what happened?"

Yes. The word dwelt inside him, but couldn't come out. You understand, though. Like always... Hutch continued to look up at Starsky, grateful he had returned, able to relax now that he was no longer alone. Don't go. Stay right here, sitting here beside me on the bed... Starsky smiled at him, with his lips, with his eyes. Again, Hutch saw that his words weren't needed. That felt good, but the question gnawing at him remained: what's the matter with me?

*********

The cold hit Starsky the following day. He woke coughing and sneezing, and after some consideration, ordered from room service. Wrapped in a heavy sweater, he drank orange juice and tea and took a couple of the pills Melissa had prescribed for him, plus some aspirin. Though the weather was bleak and he knew he should stay in, he thought of Hutch, how he'd be waiting for him this morning as he always did. Besides, I miss him. Keep wondering what he's doing, what he's going to be able to accomplish today that he couldn't yesterday. After an hour or so, he decided he felt well enough to go to the hospital.

He bundled up, but the wind and dampness seemed to sink into his bones on the short trip. Still, the smile he received when he entered Hutch's room was enough to chase the aches and pains away. He stood back, not wanting to cough on his friend, but Hutch gave him a plaintive look and he found himself moving closer.

Hutch was sitting up in bed, a group of objects arranged on the tray in front of him. They were different colors and sizes of rings, and Starsky realized that the object was to place them in the proper order on a spindle. It was a kid's game, pressed into service to retrain a man's mind.

"Hey there," Starsky said, sitting beside him, "you look like you're pretty busy this morning."

Hutch put down the ring he was holding, reaching out with both hands. Starsky took them in his own. The warm clasp felt incredibly good, to Starsky, at least. Hutch shivered.

"Yeah, it's cold out, all right," he chuckled. "Sorry buddy." For a moment, it looked like Hutch was going to laugh right along with him. Starsky squeezed the hands he held, then let them go, consciously fighting the lump forming in his throat. "Go ahead. Show me what you're doing here." He nodded to the forgotten rings.

Hutch looked at them with intense concentration, picking up first one and then another, fingering them, sizing them up. He sighed when the first one he tried was too small to drop to the bottom of the spindle, looking at Starsky for help.

"You're right. That one doesn't go there. But you can do it by yourself, you know. You're plenty old enough to stack up rings..." His voice trailed off, suddenly realizing the approaching date. Hutch's birthday -- it's next week. He's going to be... thirty-seven. I guess if he thinks about his birthday at all, though, he'll be thinking he's just turning thirty-five. Damn. Caught up in the terrible waste of time that couldn't be retrieved, he turned away, not wanting to let Hutch see the pain he knew must be showing on his face.

A gentle, warm hand found its way to his shoulder, silently asking him to turn back. Starsky closed his eyes, and for a moment he was transported back two years. He remembered it like yesterday. He'd been the one in the hospital bed, then. It had been the first time he'd seen his chest without the bandages. The scars had been terrible, frightening, making him feel so vulnerable. I wasn't me anymore. I couldn't even meet your eyes, Hutch. But you just kept your hand on my shoulder in that sure, steady way, and made me turn back to look at you. And when I did, I saw everything that was going to be okay, somehow... He wanted to cry now, from the preciousness of the memory, from the pain of their now-reversed situation, from all the things he wanted to say to Hutch but couldn't. You're still here for me, aren't you? he realized then. He blinked the tears from his eyes, and turned back.

Hutch's eyes were wide and curious, worried. "Hey, I'm all right," Starsky managed to whisper past the ache in his throat. "I was just thinkin', is all." He put a smile on his face. "Bet you don't know what's comin' up next week, do you? I guess not, what with this crazy weather down here. It's your birthday." He lifted his eyebrows, wondering if Hutch could follow what he was saying. He couldn't tell for sure. "Never you mind. This'll make it easier to surprise you -- for once." Starsky laughed, and he realized his pain was lifting.

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

Following the morning session in physical therapy, Hutch was brought back to his room for lunch. He seemed tired, and made it clear he'd rather get back into bed instead of sitting up at the table, but when the tray was carried in, he perked up. Starsky was pleased to see his appetite improving, now that he was less nauseous. Today's menu consisted of clear chicken broth, toast, applesauce and milk.

Hutch sat thoughtfully for a moment, as if contemplating the tray of food. Starsky watched in some bemusement as he carefully lifted the spoon and dipped up a little broth. He wasn't surprised to see the liquid drip off when Hutch tried to lift the spoon in his shaky grasp. Then it slipped from his fingers entirely and clattered back into the bowl, splattering broth over the tray.

Hutch looked up at Starsky, clearly stunned, as if he'd expected to have no trouble with the spoon at all. His face actually went a shade paler and his distress was tangible to his friend.

"It's okay. Remember? You're in the hospital because you've been sick, buddy." Starsky told him gently. "It's gonna take a little while until you're doing everything as well as you always did." The reassurance was not enough to erase the confusion from Hutch's face. I know what's happening... It's beginning to dawn on you that something's really wrong. How will I ever explain?

"How about letting me give you a hand?" he offered. He took up the spoon and held it for Hutch, who obediently opened his mouth for a taste of the broth. The flavor seemed to appeal to him, and his eyes finally lost their scared expression as he let Starsky feed him. "That's good, isn't it?" Starsky soothed. "You keep eating this way and you'll be strong enough to do it on your own in no time."

Finished with the soup, he tried offering the applesauce next. Hutch liked that, too. After a moment or two, Starsky saw his hand reaching for the spoon again.

"You wanta try? Okay." He watched anxiously, not wanting Hutch to feel bad if he had trouble again. But dealing with the applesauce seemed easier, and Hutch fed himself a few mouthfuls, not totally without a drip or two, but he managed.

He sighed after a couple of moments, though, and his shaky fingers replaced the spoon on the tray.

"Tired?" Starsky let his own hand cover Hutch's pale one. He didn't speak for a moment, and Hutch did not look up. There was a palpable sadness in the room, a tremulous aura of things being out of kilter with the two of them. Then Starsky sat on the bed beside him, and reached to knead the tense muscles of Hutch's neck. His friend sighed again, this time in pleasure, relaxing against his side. Starsky moved his arm to encircle the wide shoulders and they sat that way quietly for a time, the good feeling of being together nearly dissipating the atmosphere of gloom.

Hutch looked ready to doze off, so Starsky slid the tray back from its position over the bed, figuring that he could finish the meal later. He held Hutch close for a moment longer, then eased him back against his pillow, pulling the covers up over his shoulders. The blue eyes flickered open and Hutch gave him a tiny, tender smile.

"Pleasant dreams." Starsky's whisper was soft. He looked down at Hutch, wanting to show his friend how he felt, to help ease him the last step into sleep. As he watched, the tired eyes drifted closed again. Then Starsky leaned close, brushing his lips across Hutch's forehead in a touch as light as his whisper. Hutch was already asleep, but his face was peaceful. Starsky pulled up the chair, sitting close by, not wanting to leave his side.

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

He did end up leaving Hutch's side, however, when he began coughing a few minutes later. Not wanting to wake his friend, he slipped out of the room, wandering down to the cafeteria to find some lunch for himself, and to take another dose of Melissa's prescribed medicine.

It's so strange, he thought, remembering the scene they'd played out in Hutch's room. I can't get used to seeing you vulnerable like this. You were always so strong -- physically, emotionally. Whenever you did get hurt, I always felt that same disbelief. Not you, not Hutch... I never wanted this kind of thing to happen to you; I'd rather take the blows myself any day. I was always so shocked to see you fall -- never really quite knew what to do about it for a second or two. When I'd get hurt, you'd be there for me, knowing just what to say and do... I'm not sure I can be that way for you, be... everything you need. 'Cause I'm missing the thing I need most to feel I can cope with anything life dishes out... you.

He dug into the casserole he'd selected for lunch, eating without tasting the concoction. His eyes were on the window, vaguely watching the wintry sky, longing for California sunshine.

'I need you to get well, Starsk. I can't hack it on the streets without you. Can't hack it anywhere... Please, Starsk, get well...'

The memory caught him unaware. He'd been lying in his bed in the hospital, depressed, worn out from trying to breathe into that damn tube the doctors said he had to use to keep from getting pneumonia. He'd wanted nothing right then but to give up, to just let whatever was going to happen next go ahead and happen. And Hutch had been at his side. For as long as he'd been awake, Hutch had been there, soothing, reassuring, doing the little things the nurses didn't have time for to make him feel better. He'd seemed an endless source of strength and hope. But Starsky had seen Hutch's despair that day, the self-doubts that fueled his fear. You needed me.... Is this what it was like for you? Were you strong because you knew I needed you to be? The fork lay forgotten beside his plate as new conviction blossomed in Starsky's heart. He realized it must have been just as hard on Hutch to see him the way he'd been in the hospital, in pain, frightened, as it was for him to see Hutch that way now. Gotta pull myself together. Sure, it hurts. But I can't let you know that. Can't let you pick up on my worries. You need me, babe -- we need each other. Now's my turn to be there for you. Starsky sighed, feeling more heartened. I'm just so damn glad I've got the chance to give you what you need...

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

He made his way back to Hutch's room an hour later, sure his friend would still be sleeping, but eager to be there when those blue eyes opened and recognized him again. Like getting a Christmas present every day... Christmas in August. Least the weather is cooperating in the myth. He found himself grinning as he stepped from the elevator. Thoughts of Christmas presents brought him back to thoughts of Hutch's birthday. Gotta make a real special party for you. A little excitement. Presents. And cake -- hope by next week you'll be able to eat some. Gotta check with Melissa about getting one you'll be able to enjoy. I'll bet the nurses would love a chance to help you celebrate. They all love ya, Hutch. And the attention will do you good.

As he arrived at the door to Hutch's room, he heard the unmistakable voice from within, the frightened groans and whimpers that indicated Hutch was dreaming again. Each time he'd napped in the afternoon the last few days, something had come in his sleep to scare him. Starsky had seen how nervous and unsettled he'd been upon awakening. Perhaps the nightmares were getting worse.

He pushed open the door and found Hutch writhing weakly on the bed, the room in darkness. Someone had come in and pulled the blinds after Starsky had left. He reached for the light switch, calling Hutch's name as he turned on the lights.

Hutch gasped, breathing hard, looking around wildly. Starsky moved toward him at once.

"Hey, hey now," he crooned, taking the man's hand in a firm grasp. "It's okay. You were just dreaming, that's all. I'm here."

Hutch hung onto his hand as if terrified. Starsky sat on the bed, still murmuring reassurance. "You can't even tell me what's going on in those dreams, can you? What is it, babe? You remembering what they did to you?" He smoothed sweat-dampened hair back from Hutch's forehead. "It's all over now. They're long gone. Nobody's gonna hurt you. I'm here to see to that don'tcha know?"

Hutch quieted, eyes still riveted to Starsky's face. "That's better. Just forget all about it." He cast about for something to distract Hutch from the frightening images, looking around the room for inspiration. His gaze fell on a box of toys that had been brought in by the therapist. It contained the spindle and rings Hutch had been working with earlier, and when he went to pick it up, Starsky found other things inside -- a couple of puzzles, stacking boxes, colorful blocks and magnetized numbers and letters of the alphabet. He quickly picked out some blocks and put them on the bedside chair, then helped Hutch up into a sitting position, pillows stuffed behind his back, the bed raised at a comfortable angle. He pulled over the tray table and placed the blocks in front of him.

"There. How 'bout we give these things a try, huh?" He lined the blocks up in a random pattern; blue cube, yellow circle, green triangle, then gave Hutch matching pieces. "Can you copy my pattern here?"

It took Hutch a few minutes, but he eventually laid out the blocks the way Starsky had them. Then Starsky tried a more difficult pattern, using five of the blocks. Hutch didn't have the right ones to match them, and he looked over toward the box, obviously realizing that the rest of the set was needed and must be inside. Starsky, grinning, brought it over. Hutch searched diligently until he found another purple pyramid to build a stack of blocks like Starsky's.

"Okay. Let's see if you're really paying attention." Starsky took his stack apart, this time arraying the blocks in a line. First came an orange circle, then a yellow L-shape, next a blue pentagon, followed by a green oval. Hutch watched interestedly as the last piece was put down. It was a brown pyramid.

He shuffled through the blocks on his table, quickly finding the ones needed to repeat Starsky's pattern. He lined them up, circle L-shape, pentagon, oval, but could not locate a brown pyramid to end the game. He appeared to think it over, then picked up his purple pyramid from the earlier example and ended his line of blocks with that. Before Starsky could comment, Hutch then removed his partner's brown block and replaced it with the second purple pyramid shape. He looked up at Starsky, a proud gleam in his eyes.

"Think you're pretty smart, don't you?" Starsky grinned back at him. He couldn't wait to tell Amelia about what Hutch had done. She'd probably say it indicated he was perceiving reality, thinking ahead, exhibiting a sense of humor. Whatever you wanta call it, he didn't care. All I know is, Hutch is really getting better.