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CHAPTER IV

 

The session in physical therapy seemed unusually long. Hutch was tired, though he tried to do everything Amelia asked him to do. He'd begun this afternoon, as he had each day of the last week, by using the pulley to lift weights while he sat in his wheelchair. At first the activity had been difficult, the smallest weights too heavy. But he had persevered, Starsky encouraging him constantly, and by now he could handle five pounds in each hand. The strength was returning more quickly to his left arm, so he worked harder on the right, pushing himself, sure that he should be able to lift the weights more easily.

He had also spent time strengthening the muscles of his legs, by sitting on a table and pushing against a bar with his leg. This was more difficult, and he found he tired quickly, that his right leg cramped easily.

"Hutch?" Amelia moved into his line of sight and Hutch released the tension in his leg, ready to give up on that particular exercise for the day. "I want to see if you can try to transfer out of your chair today, all right?" Without waiting for an answer, she wheeled him over to a bed and spent a few moments explaining how he might best accomplish the move.

He didn't follow everything she said, but he understood what was expected of him. For a moment he sat, looking at the height of the bed, figuring out how he might shift himself out of the chair and onto the other surface. It was strange, he suddenly realized. He'd never given that much thought to so simple a movement before. I can do that... He got hold of the arms of the wheelchair, pushing hard to lift himself. The chair shifted a little and Amelia re-locked the brakes, urging him to try again. Hutch felt weak, his arms trembling with effort, his legs stiff and uncooperative. Finally he accomplished the maneuver, flopping somewhat ungracefully onto the bed. He closed his eyes, resting a moment.

Amelia was congratulating him. "Now, can you get back in the chair?"

Hutch gave her a look, wondering when Starsky was going to get back. He'd left Hutch alone in the therapy room today, saying something about errands he had to run. It already seemed like he'd been gone for a long time.

Amelia helped Hutch get his hands around the bar swinging over the bed, and he used it to hoist himself up. Getting back to the chair he felt even more uncoordinated, but he finally managed the transfer, sinking into the seat heavily.

"Encore! Encore!" It was Starsky, applauding from his vantage point at the door of the therapy room. He moved forward to Hutch quickly.

"Look at you! You did that move like a real pro." The praise made Hutch smile. He sat back in the chair breathing deeply, trying to recuperate.

"He's getting stronger all the time," Amelia informed Starsky. "The more he can do for himself, the better." The two of them chatted a moment, but Hutch didn't pay much attention. He let his eyes close for a moment. His arms and legs seemed to be quivering slightly, unused to the exertion. It didn't seem right that doing so little should be so hard.

"Pretty special day, huh?" Starsky was asking. Hutch looked up at him, uncertain of what he meant.

"Special?" The word felt cumbersome on his tongue.

"Yeah. You're on your way to really getting better."

His friend's smile was wide and bright. Hutch smiled a little in return. Getting better... I don't understand. What happened to me? What's happened to all my strength?

He knew he was in a hospital, but there seemed to be selective gaps in his memory, in his comprehension of the situation. Getting from moment to moment usually took so much of his concentration that he didn't ponder his status, accepting the way he felt without question. Yet more often now, his head seemed to clear a little and he'd realize nothing was quite the way it should be.

His shoulder was being rubbed by a strong capable hand. Hutch looked up at Starsky again, letting the man's smile push his fears aside once more. Starsky says everything is going to be all right... that I'm okay. Everything in Hutch reached out to accept his friend's judgment, and he clung to each affirmation the other man offered, needing the words as much as he'd needed to hang on to the bar over the bed a few moments ago.

"Ready to go back upstairs for lunch now?" Starsky asked.

Hutch nodded, realizing he was hungry. Starsky took command of the wheelchair and turned it toward the door, calling a goodbye to Amelia.

"I'll see you later, Hutch," the therapist said as they left. Hutch lifted a hand in a slight wave, already intent on where they were heading.

Starsky pushed the chair through the open door, coming face to face with another wheelchair and pulling Hutch to an abrupt stop.

"'Scuse me, mate," said a man dressed all in white. "Seems like we need a traffic light here."

Starsky chuckled. "No problem. Right, Hutch?"

But Hutch couldn't answer. His eyes were on the occupant of the other chair. It was a man about his own age, but his appearance was shocking. The man sat at an angle, his slender body twisted and leaning against the arm of the chair. His hands lay limp in his lap and his eyes were dull. Hutch stared, feeling upset to see someone look like this. The man was so thin. Wasted... What's wrong with him? He looked into the man's face, but read no expression there, no hope, only resignation. Fear rose up in Hutch with the dawning sense of looking into a mirror. He's like me... in a wheelchair... like me... is that what I look like?

Oblivious to his distress, Starsky struggled to push Hutch's chair past the newcomer and out the door. It was a relief when the other patient was out of sight. Hurry, Hutch wanted to tell him, take me back to my room. He felt exposed, vulnerable out there in the hall, and longed for the safety of his own room.

"Yes, today is really special," Starsky was saying, his light tone helping Hutch to forget the unsettling occurrence. "I'll bet you don't know just how special, do you?"

Hutch shook his head, looking up at his friend as they rode the elevator. Starsky was wearing a barely suppressed grin.

Curious, Hutch tried to ask a question. "What?"

"I'll never tell," his friend answered mysteriously.

The elevator ride ended and Starsky pushed Hutch's chair down the hall, humming a little, sounding happy. They stopped before the closed door of Hutch's room. Then Starsky did something strange.

He moved around to crouch in front of the chair, looking appraisingly at Hutch, smoothing his hair into place and straightening his loose-fitting pajama top. "That's better," he said, almost to himself. "Now, are you ready for a surprise?"

Surprise? Hutch didn't know how to answer, but Starsky didn't wait for one. Instead he rose and pulled the door open, pushing the chair inside.

"Surprise!"

The chorus of voices startled Hutch a little. So many people... The nurses he knew, Mary and all the others, were all standing near his bed. Dr. Samuels, too, and she was wearing a smile bigger than Starsky's. He saw paper streamers draped form wall to wall, and a pile of wrapped boxes on the bed. Then Mary turned to the dressing table and picked up something else. It had lights on it -- candles... birthday cake?

"Happy birthday, dear Hutch, happy birthday to you!" The group finished singing to him and applauded.

Hutch began to smile, his bewilderment turning to happiness. He looked up at his friend.

"You didn't suspect a thing, did you?" A hand ruffled his just-straightened hair. "I finally found a way to put one over on you!"

Hutch didn't know how to respond. A package was placed in his lap.

"Go ahead. Open it," Starsky told him.

The paper gave easily and Hutch pulled it off, letting the scraps fall to the floor. He opened the lid and found a small toy kangaroo. He picked it up, smiling and looking around.

"That's from all of us," Mary Brownwell said, indicating the other nurses. "It's a little joey, a baby 'roo."

The toy felt good in his hands, warm. Hutch stroked the brown fur covering, squeezing the softness.

"That's what they used to call you, buddy," Starsky said, grinning. "Before they knew your name here, you were just 'Joey'."

Before...?

"Here, open this one." Starsky placed another package in his hands.

This box was bigger. Hutch pulled off the bow and lifted the lid. Inside was nestled a cream-colored sweater, knit in heavy cable stitches. Hutch ran his fingers over it, liking the texture.

"That one's from me," Dr. Samuels said in her soft voice.

Hutch smiled up at her and lifted the sweater out, wanting to try it on right away. The doctor helped him to slide his arms into the sleeves and pull the sweater over his head. It felt warm, comfortable, like it was made for him. Hutch knew he should say something.

"Thank you." He looked up at the doctor, then around at the nurses. "Thank you." He patted the little kangaroo again.

"One more," Starsky announced, taking the empty box and torn paper off Hutch's lap.

Hutch was enjoying the paper ripping by now, and eager to see his next surprise. The lifted lid of the last box revealed a new pair of jeans and a plaid shirt. He just looked for a moment, feeling inexplicably overwhelmed.

"I hope they fit. I had to guess at the sizes." Starsky's voice was quiet.

Hutch fingered the soft fabric of the green plaid shirt. "Nice," he answered, looking up at Starsky. "Just right..."

The smile he got in return for those words was the brightest he'd seen all day. The look between them held, and for a moment it seemed they were alone in the room. Starsky took his hand and squeezed it, then looked around at the others.

"Looks like it's time for that cake," he announced eagerly. "Mary, can you cut it, please?"

"Awfully irregular," Dr. Samuels was saying as she shook her head "Cake before lunch..."

"Just this once, Melissa," Starsky laughed as he handed her a plate. "Besides, you agreed to this party, and the cake recipe. So stop teasing."

"You're like a kid about this, aren't you?" she asked with a smile.

Starsky nodded, handing a slice of cake to Hutch. "Nobody's ever too old for a birthday party."

The cake tasted good. The cheery voices and familiar activity put Hutch's earlier confusion out of his mind. After a few moments, the nurses and Dr. Samuels began to say they had to get back to work, but they all smiled and wished him a happy birthday as they left. Soon he was left alone with Starsky.

"Pretty good cake, huh?" his friend asked. "But I've gotta find something to wash it down with. You be all right while I go get some milk?"

Hutch nodded, taking another bite of his own slice. He finished it and put aside the paper plate. Then he noticed a bit of paper still in his lap and picked it up.

Attached to the wrapping paper was an envelope. He pulled open the flap and took out the card.

Blue was what he noticed first -- the bright blue of sky above a stretch of white sand. The beach... Nostalgia tugged at his heart. It seemed like forever since he had seen the ocean. Hutch opened the card. Inside there was writing, loosely scrolled letters, also in blue. He found himself staring at them and only slowly realized he couldn't put their meaning together.

I should... know what this says... The nagging fear crept back over him, and he swallowed hard, trying to suppress the lost feeling, looking toward the door and wanting Starsky to return. My birthday... and I didn't even know it... why? In a moment, the door opened, and his friend came in carrying a tray.

"You want some lunch now, or do you want to wait a while?" He placed the tray on the table and turned to Hutch.

Hutch put out a hand, reaching for Starsky, at a total loss as to explain what was going on in his mind. Starsky was there at once, his firm grip seeming to answer the pain in Hutch's heart.

"What, babe? Something wrong?"

Hutch swallowed again, trying to conquer the sense of confusion. He was so tired of the endless hospital corridors, of feeling sick and weak and vulnerable to the routine established here. He wanted his strength and independence back. He wanted to know what day it was without someone telling him... He looked up into the deep blue of Starsky's eyes, feeling he could ask this man for anything.

"Home," he said hesitantly. "Starsk... let's go... home."

Two arms surrounded him in a swift hug. "Don't you worry, Hutch," a gentle voice breathed at his ear. "We'll be going home soon. I promise."

Starsky squeezed him tight for another moment, then eased away. He looked down at the card in his hand. "Did you like the card?"

Hutch felt a yawning emptiness deep in his center; he truly did not know what to say. His eyes went once more to the card he held, searching, hoping to recognize something he had missed before. "It's the beach," he said finally, in a whisper.

Starsky's fingers took the card from him, opening it and showing him the inside. "Can you read what it says inside?"

Hutch continued staring, growing more and more uncomfortable. He felt embarrassed, certain he should know what was written there. His anxiety blossomed into alarm, his breathing became agitated. "I..." He looked up at his friend. "Starsk?" All his anguish was framed in the single-word question.

"You can't tell what it says?" The blue eyes looking down at him were gentle. "It's... I guess it's because you... you were hurt, buddy. Do you remember being hit on the head? It's hard for you to remember things right now. But everything's going to get back to the way it was. Don't you worry."

Hard to remember things... Hutch broke eye contact with Starsky, looking down once more at the offending birthday card. He plucked at it with his fingers. "Tell... tell me...."

"What it says? Sure." Starsky's smile came back. "It says, 'May your birthday be as beautiful as a day at the beach.' Like it?"

Hutch, feeling slightly dazed, nodded. He took the card back, looking at it again for a long moment. Starsky had told him the words, but the writing inside still held no meaning for him. He couldn't stare at it anymore without becoming upset. The card fell from his fingers and into his lap. Starsky took it away with the wrapping paper.

********

 

September 20, 1981

Hutch pulled himself between the parallel bars, arms and legs trembling with effort. He could feel sweat rivulets running down his sides, and his hands were becoming moist. It felt as though he'd lose his grip on the bars. But Amelia and Starsky were urging him to go on.

He couldn't really walk, but he managed to slowly pull himself forward. Amelia was behind him, hands gripping his waist in case he fell. Starsky stood at the end of the bars, arms outstretched, eyes alight.

"That's it, buddy. You're gonna make it," he smiled. "Come on. Just a little bit further."

Hutch slid his right hand forward on the bar, then moved his left the same way. Then, gripping with all his strength, he dragged first one leg and then the other, making a step. His right arm began to tremble and he felt the awful certainty that his right leg was too weak to hold him anymore. He shook the hair out of his eyes and looked back up at Starsky. The blue eyes were bright with anticipation. Hutch took a deep breath and tried again.

His left leg moved, lifting from the floor in more of an actual step. But the right was uncooperative; he had to concentrate so hard to move it and it felt heavy as lead. Finally, he dragged the foot forward as his arms weakened and he felt himself about to collapse.

Starsky was there, catching him as he started to fall. Hutch sagged against him, breathing heavily, feeling so safe surrounded by his friend's steady strength. He wanted to hang on tight, but his hands were too tired to grip, and he let the therapist and Starsky maneuver him into the wheelchair. Exhausted, he barely paid attention to the words of encouragement and praise they lavished on him.

"Easy partner," Starsky said softly, wiping Hutch's face with a towel. "You want a drink of water?"

Hutch lifted a hand to take the offered cup. His hand was shaking and he spilled a little of the water, but it didn't seem to matter. The cold water tasted good to his dry mouth, reviving him a little.

"Can we...?" he began, still breathing heavily, "can we go home now? You said... when I can do that... we could... go home."

A smooth hand reached out to touch his face. "I said that? You've got a pretty good memory, these days. Well, buddy, it's really up to Melissa, but I think we'll be able to start getting ready. I want to go home, too."

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

Starsky dropped into a chair in Dr. Samuels' office, waiting until she finished her phone call. He was again beginning to feel the need to move, to accomplish something. In the last three and a half weeks, Hutch had improved quickly. He was eating well and had put on nearly ten pounds. Work with a speech therapist had helped him regain some vocabulary. He still needed some help, but could manage to wash and dress himself if his clothes were laid out for him. His bladder had retrained well, and he could take care of things in the bathroom by himself. He could transfer from the wheelchair to the bed and back again. Today on the parallel bars, he'd proven how much stronger he was, and how much he wanted to go home.

Melissa hung up the phone and reached out for a file. "I heard from the rehabilitation center in California today, David. It looks as though everything will be ready when you get there." She picked up a brochure and handed it across the desk to him.

Starsky looked through it. In the color photos it looked like a pleasant place, but it was still an institution. "How long do you think he'll need to stay there?"

"A month at least, perhaps two. When he gets to the new facility, there will be a complete evaluation done on Hutch. His physical condition, his mental outlook, his verbal and reasoning skills, all of those will be taken into account in order to determine his therapy, and how long he will have to be in the hospital. Eventually, when he is more able to take care of himself and spend more time without constant supervision he can continue therapy as an outpatient." The brown eyes looked at Starsky closely. "What's wrong, David?"

"Seems like a long time. I know, I know -- " he held up a hand. "He's been sick a long time and it's going to take a long time to come back. It just seems... you know, going from one hospital to another..."

"You knew it would have to be this way," the doctor pointed out.

"Yes. I did. He's a long way from being himself. I think he sort of understands that there is something really wrong with him. Every now and then, I can see such worry in his eyes... real fear."

"Have you two talked about what's happened? I mean, have you said anything specific to him?"

"He really hasn't asked too many questions. I kinda thought you wanted me not to say anything until he did." Starsky spread his hands.

"I know." Melissa tapped her kangaroo paperweight with a pencil. "But part of his difficulty is that he doesn't know how to ask his questions. Have you observed him... appearing to want to ask something?"

Starsky had an immediate recollection of the day of Hutch's birthday. "He got upset when he looked at the card I gave him with his birthday present. He knew he should be able to read it, but he couldn't. I was sort of in shock when I realized that, so I didn't know what to tell him. I said the same old thing, basically. But I did add that he had been hit on the head, and that's why he was having trouble remembering things. It seemed to satisfy him at the time."

Melissa rolled the pencil between her fingers, her eyes thoughtful. "If you sense confusion in him, if he appears troubled, don't be afraid to put his feelings into words. Take a guess at what you think is bothering him and try to tell him what's going on. You know him best. You'll have some time on the trip, perhaps, to really talk. He should be encouraged to express himself. And I think you should begin to explain what happened to him, why he's been in hospital. It's even possible that your being too close-mouthed is scaring him more. He feels his own confusion and it's in conflict with your positive reassurance that everything is going to be fine." Melissa jotted some notes down on the page in front of her, then looked up. "You may find that once the subject is brought into the open, that he is ready to have some answers. Ask him what he remembers, see how much of his past -- his life, his career -- he retains. Your comments will certainly be taken into account as part of his evaluation, as much as my medical file."

"Okay. It's been getting hard not to say too much. I was worried about telling him everything too soon, like you'd cautioned me. But he may be ready now, to have some sort of explanation." He sighed. "Another thing about this new hospital, it seems so far away. He's so comfortable with all the nurses here, with Amelia and with you. I hope all the changes don't cause a setback."

"Sounds odd to hear you refer to home as far away from here."

"Yeah, I guess it does. This has almost become like home these last few months." He leaned forward. "I'm going to miss you. So is Hutch."

"I appreciate hearing that, but he'll be so busy he won't have time to think about us here."

"That takes care of Hutch," Starsky muttered the words, not really intending her to hear.

"David." The warm voice caused him to raise his eyes. "Part of my job is knowing when to let go. I'll miss him. I'll miss you, too. But you're both ready to move on. Even if you were Aussies, he'd be transferred to a better rehab facility eventually."

"Yeah." He ran a hand through his hair, thinking that if he was going back to work he'd better get a haircut. He felt he should say something more, acknowledge the rapport he'd often noted between Melissa and himself. He'd never had to say a word, she simply understood how important Hutch was to him. That had made things easier all around. Now he was wondering if someone else would be so understanding, and how he would ever be able to explain what was essentially unexplainable. "Melissa," he began softly, "I... I just want to thank you. I really appreciate everything you've done..." His voice trailed off as he realized how empty the words sounded. "I'm not always so good at saying things," he tried again, "and I've been pretty confused off and on during all this. But everything you've done, all the help you've given... I guess I really mean you've been like a friend to me, and I really needed that, as much as Hutch needed the medical help. It's... it's been a long time since I even talked about friendship..."

"I know." She reached across the desk to pat his hand. "There have been dark days, but they're in the past now. You made it, both of you. And you have the future." The woman's dark eyes locked with his own. "I hope you'll be able to spend it together."

She knows. She's always known. The quiet statement gave validation to his lonely feelings of love for Hutch. "If... if it's okay, I'd like to write to you every so often... kinda let you know how Hutch is coming along."

"Of course it's okay. I've been his doctor for a long time."

Starsky grinned. "I don't know what would've happened if you hadn't been."

Melissa gave one of her sweet smiles in response, then went on as though somewhat embarrassed. "Let's look over these travel plans. Everything needs to be coordinated so you have as little trouble on the way back as possible."

The trip was going to take even longer than when Starsky had come to Australia alone. They would take it in easy stages so as not to overtax Hutch. First, they would leave Adelaide and fly to Sydney, where they would check into a hotel to rest for several hours before taking the overseas flight toward the States. The next plane would carry them as far as Hawaii, but instead of having only a two-hour layover as Starsky had on his first trip, they would spend the night in a hotel and resume the journey the following day. Starsky was going to be totally in charge of Hutch, seeing to all his needs, including any medication that might be required, such as Tylenol for pain, Valium to ease any emotional upset, and a sedative to assure Hutch of getting the restful sleep he would need. Melissa and Starsky had both sat down with Hutch and explained the trip to him, but they were still uncertain of how much he understood. It was clear, however, that he did comprehend the idea of going home.

Home... Starsky, too, was eager to move on, to get back to familiar things. It's time...

********

 

September 28, 1981

The new pair of jeans felt rough and stiff, but Hutch was glad to be wearing them. He sat in his wheelchair, dressed in the jeans and shirt Starsky had given him for his birthday, wearing the sweater from his doctor, too. Putting them on, he'd begun to feel extremely clear-headed, ready to face the world outside. No more hospital beds, or tubes in me, or exercises in rehab...

It's been... so long. It seemed he had been here in the hospital for a very long time. He wasn't even sure how long. Have to ask Starsky. Starsky would have the answers, Hutch was sure. And asking him seemed natural. But Hutch wondered why he himself did not know.

He looked down at his hands, lying clasped in his lap. Long enough to lose all of my tan... he mused. He flexed his fingers, examining, not for the first time, the rings on the little finger of his left hand. He had been aware of them for some time, but had never really considered the sight unusual. Now he looked at them more closely, holding his hand up toward the light streaming in through the window.

Silver and gold... like... Starsky's rings. No -- these are his. But how did I...?

His hands clenched tight into fists, and he cursed himself for the void in his memory. Like being only half a person... only half alive... What happened to me? Where am I, really? Who am I?

He squeezed his eyes shut, sighing, then opened them again, watching the door to his room. There were so many questions inside him he didn't even know how to begin asking. When Starsky was with him, they didn't seem important anyway.

The rings on his finger felt good. Hutch rubbed the metal bands with the finger of his other hand, feeling comforted, as if Starsky were here with him now.

C'mon Starsky. I'm ready and waiting. Let's go...

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

Starsky reached the door to Hutch's room. For the last time, he realized. He pushed it open.

Hutch sat there, waiting for him. For a moment, all Starsky could do was look. The jeans, the sweater, the plaid collar of the shirt, they all swept Starsky back to a time years ago. The heavy knit of the sweater seemed to add bulk to Hutch's frame, and with his face all-expectant like that he looked just like he used to, boyish, eager and happy.

"What?" the vision asked hesitantly, as Starsky stood and stared. "Do I look funny or something?"

"No." Starsky shook his head. "Not funny at all. In fact, you look pretty damn good."

A smile broke like sunshine on the pale face, and the blue eyes sparkled. Hutch even sounded like his old self today.

"You ready to hit the streets, partner?"

Hutch blinked, eyes clouding just a little as if he were trying to interpret the question. "Yeah. If you say so."

The door opened again, and Dr. Samuels entered. "G'day, you two. I can see you're ready to leave us." She handed a folder to Starsky. "Here are your copies of the papers. Keep track of the medication you give him on the trip. There shouldn't be anything to worry about, since he's been doing so well these last few weeks."

"I'll be sure to remind him of that." He tucked the folder under his arm, shifting the other things he was carrying so he didn't drop them.

"Oh, I nearly forgot," Melissa began. "There are some reporters downstairs."

"Really?" Starsky was surprised. He knew Hutch's recovery had been reported in the local paper, the one that had run his picture two years ago when Melissa had been trying to determine his identity. There had been calls about his condition for several weeks, and Melissa had fielded the questions, keeping Hutch himself out of the spotlight. "How did they know we're leaving today?"

"I'm not sure. Someone on staff must have called them. I'm sure we can slip out the back entrance, though. There's no need to confuse Hutch..."

"Starsk?" A hand brushed Starsky's wrist. "Are we going soon?"

"Sure, buddy." He turned back to look at Melissa. "I guess we have everything."

"I'll take charge of him on this trip," the doctor told him, moving to grasp the wheelchair handles.

Starsky smiled. "Sounds good to me." He held the door and watched her push Hutch's chair through. Her patient was beaming happily.

They rode down together in the elevator, Starsky and Melissa talking quietly, Hutch watching the glowing lights that told him they were descending to street level. As the doors opened, Starsky spoke to him.

"Almost forgot, buddy. I brought you a new raincoat. It's pretty cold out there today, and it was drizzling a few hours ago."

Hutch looked up. "Coat?"

"Yeah. Let me help you get into it." He bent, and with Melissa's assistance, they put the coat on Hutch. His fingers ran over the fabric curiously. Starsky held the doors open and Melissa maneuvered the chair through.

"There they are!" Excited voices intruded on the small group, and a pack of reporters carrying lights and cameras rushed up.

"You're the American who was in the coma, right, mate?" one said, pushing a microphone in Hutch's face.

"Hey -- Leave him alone." Starsky took charge, stepping forward.

"We just want a word or two with the famous patient," another reporter said, crouching to kneel close to Hutch. "C'mon, tell us what it feels like to wake up from the dead..."

"That's enough!" Starsky got hold of the man's collar and lifted, pulling him away from Hutch's vicinity.

"Gentlemen, please!" Melissa put herself between the wheelchair and the crowd. "This man is recovering from a long illness. He doesn't need to answer questions; he needs to be able to leave the hospital peacefully..."

"Starsk?" Hutch's voice came to him, sounding thin and confused. Starsky turned and saw how much paler Hutch's face had become. His eyes were wide, filled with an expression of shock. He flinched when a flashbulb went off in his face.

"That's it. You're scarin' him. We're getting out of here, right now!" The authority in his tone quelled some of the reporters' enthusiasm and he used the opportunity to turn the wheelchair in the direction of the driveway. Melissa gave them some time by answering a few of their questions herself.

Soon she hurried back to them and helped Starsky get Hutch into the waiting car. The driver folded the chair and stowed it in the trunk -- 'boot' as Melissa called it -- with the luggage. Starsky climbed into the back seat with Hutch, and the doctor sat up front with the driver who hurriedly put the car in gear and drove off.

"They can be frightfully rude," she said, turning to look at Hutch.

"Almost as bad as the ones back home," Starsky agreed, wiping his face and sighing in relief. He followed Melissa's gaze.

Hutch sat there, looking bewildered, breathing shallowly, eyes darting and seeming unfocused.

Starsky got hold of his hand. "Hey," he began gently, "you still with me?"

The eyes turned to him. Hutch couldn't seem to find words.

"It's okay. We're goin' home, remember?"

He didn't answer. Starsky saw the long throat work as Hutch swallowed convulsively.

The remainder of the trip to the Adelaide airport was less distressing. Starsky was glad Melissa had accompanied them; she stayed with Hutch while he took care of checking in and getting their few bags marked. They had timed their arrival so that there would not be much time to wait.

Starsky had thought the noise and bustling crowd would interest Hutch, but he didn't seem to notice. The experience with the reporters had obviously unsettled him.

"Do you think they scared him, asking those questions that way?"

"Don't worry," Melissa insisted. "He was so surprised, I'm sure he didn't understand a word any of them said to him."

"I hope you're right." Starsky wasn't so sure. Lately, Hutch seemed to be understanding things better all the time. He still didn't have much to say, but he was alert and listening most of the time.

They were called to board the plane before the rest of the passengers. A stewardess came over, asking if there was anything special they needed.

"We just want to make sure we have a seat near the men's room," Starsky told her.

"No worries," the woman smiled. "You'll be in the first row, right by the dunny. There's more space in those seats, too."

Melissa walked with them as Starsky pushed the wheelchair through the exit and outside. Unlike the large airports in the States, here it was necessary to go outdoors to get aboard the plane. Most of the passengers would climb the stairs pushed up to the jet, while Starsky and Hutch would ride up on a special lift, one usually used to hoist baggage, Starsky supposed.

Everything was fine until Hutch looked up and saw the airplane.

"No!" He sounded as emphatic as that first time he had spoken, when the doctor had tried to get his blood.

"What, Hutch? We're just getting' on the plane." Starsky patted his shoulder.

"No!" He said it again, louder this time.

Starsky tilted the chair back a little to get it over the lip of the lift.

Hutch tried to get out of the chair.

"Hey!" Starsky used one hand to restrain him. "Take it easy. Nothin' to worry about. We're going for a little joy ride, that's all."

"No! I... won't go! You can't -- No!" He looked around wildly. "Starsky!"

"I'm here. I'm right here." Starsky knelt in front of him, worried now. "What's wrong?"

"Starsky... What? You..." Hutch couldn't explain himself. He was breathing hard, eyes wide and anxious. He looked up, shuddering as he took in the shape of the plane they were trying to board. "No!"

"Jesus." A light bulb went on, but Starsky didn't like the conclusion he was reaching. "Melissa, you suppose he remembers bein' put on the plane... you know, when they took him?"

"That must be it. I can't think of any other reason he should be so frightened." She stepped onto the lift with them. "I'll ride up with you."

The lift operator had waited for Starsky's signal, then he started the machine. Hutch moaned, again trying to climb out of the chair. It was all Starsky could do to restrain him. By the time they reached the door of the plane, Hutch was hyperventilating, still insistently saying 'no' and calling Starsky's name, not understanding he was right there.

They wheeled him down the aisle and helped him into a seat, both the doctor and Starsky trying to offer reassurance. Hutch did not seem to hear even half of what they said to him. The stewardess aboard was watching them doubtfully, as if this passenger was not fit to travel on her plane. Starsky was beginning to wonder if he were really ready for the trip after all.

"Do you have the medication?" Melissa spoke urgently, tugging on his arm. "I think we should give him some Valium. Once you get underway, he'll begin to calm down."

"I hope so." Starsky fumbled in his carry-on bag for the medicine while Melissa asked the stewardess for some water. "Hutch," he said, trying to get his attention. The man seemed not to be able to see or hear him now, however. It took Melissa to get the sedative into him.

"That's right," she said in a no-nonsense tone. "Swallow the pill. That's good. You'll feel better soon, Hutch."

Starsky sat back, watching her take charge, feeling as though he had betrayed Hutch by bringing him here.

"That's better." Her voice became soothing, and she patted the tensed hands and stroked the frantic face. "Just relax. You're safe. You're going home. Home, Hutch. David's here. See? He's right here with you." She touched a finger to Hutch's chin, turning his gaze toward Starsky.

The blue eyes found him and he waited to see the anguish in them. But Hutch only looked at him gratefully, recognizing him again. Starsky felt as though a fist clutching his heart had finally let go. Cautiously, he reached for Hutch's hand again.

"That's better," Melissa pronounced. She gave Starsky a look. "Are you okay?"

He shrugged. "Guess so." He smiled sheepishly. "Good thing you came aboard with us, doc."

The other passengers were beginning to arrive. Starsky let go of Hutch's hand and stood up. "Looks like this is it."

"I'm glad to have known you, David." Melissa said solemnly, offering her hand.

He took it gently in his own. "We said goodbye once before..."

"But this time it's under much happier circumstances."

"We still managed to make it a little exciting," he returned with a sheepish grin.

The doctor nodded. She bent down to Hutch, touching his cheek one more time. "Goodbye, Hutch. You're going to be just fine. I know it." He didn't answer, but he looked at her unblinkingly for a long moment.

She stood up and faced Starsky again. He felt awkward. He didn't know her very well, but he felt like he was losing a friend. Finally, he reached to pull her into a hug, holding on tight for the briefest of moments.

The doctor's eyes were bright when he released her. He had to swallow before speaking. "Thank you. For everything."

"You take care," she told him firmly. And, squeezing his hand once more, she moved down the aisle and out of his life.

Starsky sat down, feeling like he'd jumped into an undercover assignment totally unprepared. "Just you and me, now," he said, turning to Hutch.

The blue eyes were looking at him with a strange expression. Looking... past me? Do you really see me, Hutch? Or are you totally confused about what's going on?

"Hutch, I... I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare you."

"Time to buckle your seatbelts," the quiet voice of a stewardess broke in. Starsky hooked his own belt, then turned to take care of Hutch's.

The new action startled his friend again, but when Hutch said no this time it was with less conviction than before. Starsky wondered if fastening the seat belt made him feel like a prisoner. Forcing the worry aside, he started up yet another of the inane conversations he'd held with a quiet Hutch, describing the boarding of the other passengers, the sights they would see, where they were going and the other details of the trip. Slowly, the anxiety began to leave Hutch's eyes and by the time they began to move, he seemed more at ease, though his breathing still sounded irregular and nervous to Starsky.

The plane was going faster now. Hutch tensed again, looking as though he wanted to climb out of the seat, turning a worried glance toward the window. Starsky was afraid he'd panic again.

"Hutch," he said firmly. "Look at me." He reinforced the order by grasping his friend's shoulders, tugging until he got his attention.

"That's it. Look at me. Not out there. There's nothing out there that can hurt you."

The plane lifted off, hurling itself into the air. Starsky held Hutch's gaze by sheer force of will. We're together, he wanted to tell him out loud. And we're gonna make it. Just the way we always did. But the words wouldn't come. He just held the frail shoulders, his sight locked in the fathomless blue of Hutch's eyes.

Long moments later, Hutch relaxed totally as the drug took effect. He dozed off, head on Starsky's shoulder, leaving his partner to contemplate the journey and what it would bring them, alone.