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CHAPTER V

 

Hutch woke as Starsky unfastened his seat belt. The action startled him and he couldn't help flinching a little.

"It's okay." Soothing words were directed to him. "We've landed. Time to get off the plane."

Hutch didn't answer. He was tired, groggy, still a little disoriented. He let Starsky help him get up and into the wheelchair and just rode quietly as they disembarked.

People all around. Who are they? Why are we here? This isn't the hospital... isn't home...

"We're in Sydney," Starsky told him. The words were meaningless. "We're just gonna check into a hotel for a coupla hours so you can rest."

Rest? I've been resting...

"I'll bet you're hungry. Don't worry. We'll have a little lunch when we get to the hotel."

Hutch tuned the words out. Trying to make sense of the confusion in his head and around him was giving him a headache. He let Starsky take charge.

People moved out of the way as they passed, turning when they noticed the chair. Some of them bent down a little and he could see their faces, odd expressions of sympathy or disturbance. He began to feel uncomfortable, as though there were something wrong with him. He looked down at his lap, fingers checking the zipper on the new jeans.

"Hey, what're you doin'?" Starsky's voice was colored with a chuckle. "You're okay, aren't you? Haveta go?" A hand tugged at his arm.

Hutch stopped his investigation at once, looking up at Starsky. His friend looked exasperated. What did I do wrong?

They emerged through double glass doors to a street. Starsky hailed a cab and a few minutes were spent manhandling Hutch and the chair and the luggage into various sections of the automobile.

The taxi lurched into traffic and for a few minutes Hutch enjoyed the quiet.

"Enough heat back there, mate?" the driver spoke up suddenly.

"Fine," came Starsky's voice in answer.

"He's not too cold, is he?"

"No, we're fine."

He? Does he mean me? Why doesn't he ask me himself?

"Good," the driver went on. "He a friend of yours?"

Starsky shifted his position. "Right."

"In an accident or something?"

"Yeah."

Hutch watched Starsky's face as he answered. The blue eyes shifted quickly to look at Hutch, then away, out the window.

"Too bad," the driver continued. His tongue made a sound of sympathy and pity. "Yeah. Too bad when things like that happen."

"Listen, 'mate'," Starsky said brusquely. "If you wouldn't mind..."

"Huh? Oh, sorry." The driver threw a quick glance toward the back seat. "No worries. I didn't mean any harm."

"I know."

Hutch felt a flush spread over him, warming his cheeks. He felt conspicuous, embarrassed, without fully understanding why. He knew only that he wanted to get out of the cab and away from the prying judgmental eyes of the driver.

When the car came to a stop, Hutch wished he could make himself shrink so he would be less easily noticed. He kept his head down, barely moving to help Starsky get him out of the vehicle. The air outside was cold and wintry, and he tried to pull the sides of the new raincoat closer around him with stiff, awkward fingers, hunching his neck to avoid the chill breeze. Not wanting to see or be seen, he closed his eyes tight, letting Starsky take him wherever he wanted.

At last, he was pushed no further. The chair came to a stop and Starsky walked from behind him. There was the sound of bags being dropped on the floor. Then, he sensed Starsky's warmth nearby.

He opened his eyes. Starsky was there, crouching before him. His hands reached, touching Hutch's knees and his head tilted appraisingly as he observed him.

"You okay?"

Hutch had no answer. He grimaced slightly, but Starsky didn't ask for more. He stood up then, surveying the room in which they found themselves, pulling off the suede coat he wore. He glanced back at Hutch.

"You mind if I use the bathroom first? That cold air -- " He laughed softly and, without waiting for an answer, hurried to the other room and closed the door behind him.

Hutch looked around then, wondering where they were. It was a room decorated in tones of beige, containing two beds, a desk and a television. Hope we don't have to be here long...

Something caught his eye. It was his own image in the mirror above the desk. He nudged the wheels of his chair, edging a bit closer to take a look. What he saw was very discouraging.

 

It was not the first time he had looked in the mirror. Yet perhaps this was the first time be had observed himself more objectively. His hair was disheveled, his face white, skin pasty. Watery blue eyes looked back at him; they were like the eyes of a stranger. Slowly, Hutch raised a hand to touch his face. The flesh felt delicate, thin. This isn't me... it can't be. How did I get this way? Feeling overwhelmed, tears welled in his eyes. Disconnected words filtered through his mind: accident... too bad... back from the dead... coma...

Coma. There was a world of meaning behind the word, yet it remained beyond his grasp. He didn't know its definition, but it had the power to terrify him, nonetheless.

"Hutch?" The question was full of concern, the speaker moving quickly to his side. "What's all this?" Slender fingers touched at his cheek, coming away wet.

Hutch shut his eyes, but the flow didn't cease. Shamed, he turned his head away.

"Don't." The order came out choked. "Please, Hutch. Don't."

The sound of Starsky's distress made it hard to stop the tears. Hutch tried, drawing a ragged breath. He felt he should say something, but in his misery the right words stayed out of reach. Finally he managed a shaky, "Hurts."

"I know." Starsky moved closer, arms surrounding Hutch's shoulders. "But you listen, okay? It's gonna be all right. You haveta believe in me, man..."

Hutch tried to form a question. "Window..." he gasped. "How?"

"Window? What do you mean, babe?" Starsky straightened and looked out the window.

"How?" Hutch persisted, peering at his reflection once again. The ravaged face now showing there looked even worse with the tear tracks.

"Oh -- You mean, the mirror?" Starsky's gentle voice guessed. He turned the wheelchair, preventing Hutch from staring any longer. Firm hands took Hutch's face and the shuddering man met the earnest eyes of his friend. "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," he breathed. "You remember that? Maybe you don't. Maybe, like always, you're only getting fifty percent of what I'm sayin'... but you gotta know, Hutch. You look so good, sittin' there, so wonderful -- I know it must be confusing, but honest -- you're getting better. Really and truly, I promise. You look so much better now to me -- it's just beautiful to see how much you've improved already..." The words petered out and Starsky waited quietly, eyes showing how much he hoped he had helped.

Hutch did not know how to respond. His friend's words were heartening, but what lay underneath them hurt, too. 'You look so much better, now... ' God, how bad did I look before?

Starsky cleared his throat, firmly changing the subject. "Now, let's call down to room service and get us some lunch. We'll be here for about three hours. Do you want a nap? Maybe you should stretch out on the bed for a while. Or do you need to go to the bathroom? If you need help -- just ask." He stood, pulling the wheelchair up between the double beds. Hutch could no longer see the mirror that way. Instead he watched as Starsky reached for the phone.

"How 'bout some soup?" his friend said, glancing his way. Hutch nodded, feeling wrung out. He was content to let Starsky lead the way now, again.

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

The 747 banked into a turn and Starsky leaned past a sleeping Hutch to peer out the window. Beneath them lay spotty clouds and a blue sea. They had finally left Australia behind. Beginning the second leg of the journey had held less conflict than the first. Starsky had spent a few moments telling Hutch that they would be getting aboard another plane, that nothing was going to hurt him and that everything would be fine. Then, he had also taken the precaution of giving him another .5mg Valium. Once upon a time, Starsky thought ruefully, you'd have given me an argument about takin' those. But once upon a time was over long ago...

He was dozing now. Starsky hated to see him so out of it. It presented too many reminders. But the trip itself was stressful to him and Melissa had said he should sleep as much as possible. Hutch looked stronger, but he was still a long way from normal. This travel business is makin' me tired, too, Starsky thought, feeling more relaxed as he made the realization.

His traveling companion twitched slightly and awoke, bringing one hand up to rub at his eyes. When he saw Starsky smiling down at him, his expression brightened.

"Hi, Starsk." A tiny smile.

"Hi there, partner. You feelin' better?"

Hutch struggled up to a straighter sitting position and looked around somewhat warily. "On the plane?" he asked.

"That's right. It's okay. I'm right here."

Hutch nodded seriously. Then he reached with his right hand, feeling under his coat on his left side. Encountering only the fabric of his sweater, he looked surprised.

"My... cover?"

"Huh? What're you lookin' for?"

The troubled blue eyes sank closed for an instant, and the line in the pale brow deepened as if Hutch were concentrating. "Cover... you know," he insisted. His hand groped under the knit of his pullover. "Where... is it?" He began to look distressed.

"You lookin' for your gun?" Starsky said in dawning amazement. Every so often, Hutch came out with one word when he meant an entirely different one. Or he found a word in the same family and used it when the one he really wanted wouldn't come to mind.

The wide mouth shaped the term, as if testing it, then Hutch nodded.

"Neither of us are packing on this trip, partner," Starsky began, suppressing a smile. Then the event took on additional significance. Hutch must remember carrying a gun, being a cop. "We're off duty this time. Just on vacation. Like when we spent the weekend up at Cap'n Dobey's cabin, remember?"

The light eyebrows raised, and Hutch's expression grew faraway. "Needed 'em," he said emphatically.

"You do remember!" Starsky felt joyful. He squeezed Hutch's arm, laughing out loud, and his puzzled friend chuckled a little, too.

Starsky leaned back in his seat, feeling he could fly high even without the plane. It was like a new light had gone on at the end of his very own, very long tunnel, and those little lights, all of them, were getting bigger all the time. One of these days, Hutch, you and me are gonna get to the end of that tunnel...

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

Starsky was well into a travel magazine when Hutch began to shift uncomfortably in his seat. Then, insistent fingers plucked at Starsky's sleeve.

"Hmm? Need something, buddy?"

Hutch squirmed again. "Where's the...?"

"Oh." Starsky closed the magazine and unhooked his own and Hutch's seatbelts. "It's right in front of us. I'll help you get to it."

He stood up and provided leverage so Hutch could also get to his feet. As he straightened, the plane lurched slightly as a bit of turbulence was encountered. "Great timing," Starsky muttered.

Hutch was holding onto him with a tight grip. With the plane still bouncing, Starsky guided him the few feet to the men's room. Fortunately, it was unoccupied. He pulled open the door and, hanging on to the wall and Starsky's arm, Hutch haltingly took the two or three steps necessary to enter the tiny cubicle. Starsky smiled, proud of how well he had managed them. Just as the door closed behind him, however, the plane gave a more severe pitch. Starsky heard Hutch groan.

The two women in the seats opposite the one he shared with Hutch looked up from their paperbacks curiously. At Starsky's weak smile, they exchanged a glance whose meaning he didn't think he should try to figure out.

The plane dipped and tipped again, and once again Hutch's voice, muffled, came through the bathroom door. Starsky had no choice. He slipped the door open a hair, and tried to peer inside, keeping the opening blocked from the other travelers' view with his body.

"You need some help in there?"

Hutch did, indeed. He was leaning against the wall, hand clenched on the rim of the tiny sink. "Shit." Starsky muttered it under his breath, and squeezed into the miniscule space with Hutch. He couldn't get the door to close completely behind him, so he opted to hang onto the handle with one hand. That'll make it real easy to help him in here, he thought in annoyance.

"Come on. Let's figure out how to manage this, okay?" he told a white-lipped Hutch. "It's easy. Turn around, unzip, aim and that's all. You can do that, can'tcha? I'll just stand here and hang onto you so you don't fall."

It was easier said than done. The plan's seesawing didn't let up, and Hutch had obviously become nervous in the unusual situation. His shaking fingers couldn't deal with the stiff zipper on the jeans so Starsky undid it for him, after first having his partner cling to the door handle. "Don't want to give the folks out there a show, do we?" he quipped. Hutch's face turned crimson.

Starsky felt some embarrassment, too. It wasn't that he minded helping Hutch, it was that on this occasion it was so public. The clothing logistics were eventually taken care of, and then in awkward moves Hutch got turned around to face in the right direction, Starsky holding his waist until he finished. There was a fine trembling under his hands, Hutch shaking with nerves. The tiny room felt over-heated and both of them had started sweating, adding one more element to the uncomfortable set of circumstances. One of these days, we'll look back at this and laugh, Starsky lamented. But he didn't say it aloud to Hutch. Instead, his own thoughts supplied the taunting reply, 'when you speak of this, and you will, be kind...' He sighed, feeling like some kind of moron, wishing there was a way to help his friend avoid all the indignities of his situation.

Hutch's face was still touched with pink when he turned back to Starsky. He kept his eyes firmly on the ceiling as he was rebuttoned and zipped. Starsky looked up, tugging his chin. "You're all right. Wash your hands." At least the turbulence seemed to be finally dying down. At last, after what seemed like at least a half hour later, they got the door open and maneuvered back to their seats. The two women travelers must have been watching the door avidly, but they quickly returned to their reading when Starsky emerged.

The man sitting next to him was still wired with tension. Starsky rubbed gently at his forearm. "Hey, Hutch. It's all right. Everybody needs a friend once in a while." It certainly wasn't the first time he'd given him a little assistance in the bathroom.

"Feel like... a baby..." the words came out sounding strained, mortified.

Perhaps it was the fact that Hutch really was getting better; he realized now when he was incapacitated and it abashed him, while before he hadn't cared who saw him like that. His modesty was returning, a good sign in the long run, Starsky figured.

"I know," he said softly, trying to convey understanding. "Just forget it, Hutch. It's no big thing. These things happen, okay?" The blue eyes finally met his own, and Hutch managed a tentative smile. "That's better."

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

When the plane finally began to descend from the sky, Starsky was glad. It had been nearly twelve hours of air time, and they were still only halfway home. Hawaii. Looking down, he could make out the lights of the landing field and longed to be able to see the beach. Tomorrow. It should be warm... Hutch will love it. It'll do both of us a world of good.

He touched the arm of his seat partner. Hutch's eyes fluttered open and a look of happiness spread on the relaxed features. "We there yet?"

"You got it." Starsky grinned back. "Let's go."

He felt he was getting pretty good at maneuvering the wheelchair through crowds of people. This time, Hutch was looking around the airport eagerly, taking note of what was going on around him, though he appeared somewhat tired from the traveling. Starsky collected their bags and they boarded a shuttle bus that would take them to the hotel where they had reserved a room.

The room this time was decorated in tropical colors; the greens were restful, the blues and pinks bright and exciting. Two wide beds with white rattan headboards looked inviting. Starsky ordered a light supper and set about making himself and Hutch comfortable.

"I started runnin' a hot bath for you," he announced after they had eaten, coming out of the huge bathroom. "Oughta make you feel better. It's awful sitting up in those airplane seats all that time, isn't it?" He reached a hand up to chafe at his shoulders.

Hutch looked up, grimacing as he copied Starsky's move.

Starsky grinned. "That's for sure. I'll give you a rubdown after your bath, okay?"

Hutch still wasn't much of a conversationalist. Starsky was not bored with his company, however, and he'd gotten used to the comfortable silences. He helped Hutch out of the chair and settled him on the bed, making small talk as he laid out pajamas and a robe for him. Figuring the tub was full enough, he went in to turn off the water.

"You start getting out of those clothes, okay?" he called, bending over to adjust the taps. He noted a packet of herbal bath salts which, when opened, had a nice, woodsy fragrance, so he tossed them into the tub, too. He glanced out the partially opened door and saw Hutch working on the buttons of his shirt.

It hit him all at once, the realization that, for the first time, he was all alone with Hutch. This wasn't the hospital; no one would come in unannounced. This wasn't an institution, governed by rules. This was, even if for only tonight, their private place together.

Starsky sat down heavily on the edge of the tub. Useta dream about getting him alone in a place like this... The absurd unfairness of what had happened, what they had been cheated of, rose up to tighten in his chest and throat. I love him. That was it, pure and simple. It didn't even come down to emotional versus physical love, or combinations thereof. It was what Starsky felt. And I want to show it... somehow... isn't there some little way...? In the hospital, such thoughts had seemed foreign, out of step with the circumstances. Now he was free to -- to what? Go out there and take his hand... make some kinda declaration? No. He wouldn't even understand.

That hurt. But Starsky had no wish to confuse or trouble his friend. He looked out toward where he was slowly, thoughtfully, removing his shirt. You're no more ready to deal with that idea than you are of ... picking out what you should wear tomorrow. Hutch wasn't a child though. He had feelings, strong emotions, Starsky knew. He was a man who was trying to find his way back to a world he suddenly found unfamiliar. Today, too many fresh pieces of the puzzle had been tossed in. Throwing in some new element now wouldn't be fair at all.

Do you remember? Starsky's heart was begging him to ask. Please -- let me just know you remember that I love you, and that you love... loved me, once a long time ago.

Is that all it was? Something from long ago that can never be recreated now? We've been through so much -- is nothing of that love we talked about going to survive? I wanted it to. I hoped and prayed and begged for it to...

"I'm ready, Starsk," the plaintive, eager voice sang out.

"Coming." Starsky sighed, getting up and going out to lend him a hand.

He was sitting on the bed, stripped down to his underwear. Starsky met the blue eyes for a long moment. "C'mon, I'll give you a ride."

Hutch pushed up off the mattress, and Starsky could see how exhausted he really was. Like the old days, Hutch didn't admit it when he was tired. He pulled up the chair and helped Hutch into it, then guided him into the blue tiled bathroom.

He picked up one of the big, plush towels and placed it in the tub, figuring Hutch would slide around too easily otherwise. Besides, thin as you are, you'll need something to soften that hard tub...

"Okay. You ready?" he asked, looking his charge over.

"Ready." Hutch said it gamely.

It wasn't too difficult getting him out of the chair and disposing of his briefs, but it took a bit of planning to get him to the point of standing in the water.

"Maybe I should have started filling this thing after you were in," he mused.

"I'm okay," Hutch insisted.

"Sure. Absolutely." Starsky wished he could be as certain. "How 'bout we get you to sit on the edge first? Take this thing one step at a time...."

They managed it with careful, slow movements, improvising, thinking out loud. Hutch's hands were clamped tight to Starsky's forearms, Starsky held Hutch around the chest. They both ended up sitting on the edge of the tub, Hutch with his feet in the water.

"Whew," Starsky muttered, wiping sweat off his face. The bathroom was steamy.

"I..." Hutch began. "I'm sorry I'm... so much trouble..."

Starsky looked at him. It was the first time he had said anything like that. The big eyes were full of apology. That was Hutch, tried and true. He loved to take care of people, but didn't want to be a burden to anyone else himself.

"You're no trouble," Starsky managed, his voice husky. "Like I keep telling you, what are partners for?"

"Partners..." Hutch said the word slowly, trying it out. He looked back at Starsky, eyes bright, seeming so deep, so full of knowledge. "Partner."

"That's right. I'm your partner. And you're mine. Remember?"

Hutch didn't answer in words, but his hands tightened on Starsky, and his face radiated a warmth that went straight to Starsky's hungry heart.

I do love you. Just as you are right now, as you were before, and whatever way this all turns out... I love you, Hutch.

Starsky drew a breath, trying to curb his emotions. "Okay, fine. Now, can you slide down into the water?"

Hutch looked at him like he was crazy for a second, then gathered himself to make the move. Starsky hung on carefully; the burden he was holding was very precious. The long legs shifted. Hutch edged off the rim of the tub, and cautiously settled his bottom into the water.

Hutch was breathing a bit heavily, and under his hand, Starsky could feel the thrumming of his heart.

"You okay? Not too hot, is it?"

Hutch shook his head, blond strands falling into his eyes. "Feels good."

The deep water lapped at Hutch's belly, beading on the porcelain flesh. Starsky could not resist touching, smoothing the soft water over Hutch's sides and back. Hutch closed his eyes and sighed with pleasure. In that moment, Starsky felt time weaving them closer together, past and present becoming one. As never before since Hutch had awakened, Starsky sensed they were thinking and feeling the same things, sharing without words, the way they used to.

He reached for the soap and rubbed lather into a thick washcloth, then proceeded to bathe Hutch's back. The quiet man leaned into the motion and Starsky reveled in the sweet, simple contact. Hutch sighed, his face looking blissful as Starsky's hands moved up to his shoulders, then shifted the cloth to run it down over his front. The blond head tilted to one side, eyes opening and intent with concentration.

A firm hand came up to catch at Starsky's wrist. "I can..." His fingers tugged at the dripping washcloth.

"Oh. Yeah, you're right about that." It had felt good to be needed, and now there was a twinge of pain as he realized he wasn't, not quite as badly as before. But that meant Hutch was healing. "Okay, go ahead. But don't forget anything important."

Hutch looked askance at him, eyebrows raised as if to say 'who me?' Then he carefully picked up the big bar of scented soap and lathered the cloth for himself.

Starsky got up from his crouched position, knees protesting the strain, and eased into the wheelchair, figuring he should stay and keep an eye on Hutch. The steamy water was likely to make him sleepy and he didn't want him to slide into the deep water. He watched Hutch's progress, feeling as pleased now to see him able to do the simple task for himself as he had enjoyed helping him before. There was a grace in the easy movements of Hutch's hands and arms, of his legs as he raised them, bent at the knee, to wash them, too. Even pale as you are, thinned down this way, you're beautiful...

They were together, in perhaps an even more intimate situation than they had been in the men's room on the plane, but this time Hutch was not so self-conscious. And neither was Starsky. They were secure and comfortable with each other, totally safe. When did we ever need more than each other?

Hutch's eyes were growing droopy, his gestures more uncoordinated, a sure sign the fatigue was catching up to him. Starsky leaned over to open the drain, deciding it would be safer and easier to get Hutch out of the tub when it was empty.

"There," he said as the last of the water escaped. Looking up, he noticed Hutch was shivering a little, so he draped a towel around his damp shoulders. "Let's get you out of there and into bed."

Two big hands reached for him, and Starsky got his arms around the thin chest, heaving Hutch up to a standing position. Hutch slipped suddenly, hands clinging tight, but Starsky kept hold of him, steadying him until he could help him step up over the edge of the tub. Without letting go, he grabbed for another towel and wrapped it around Hutch's waist, then let his friend ease down into the wheelchair once again. Together they blotted the water from Hutch's body.

Starsky was rubbing all of the long back he could reach. Hutch sighed, whispering, "Good. Feels good, Starsk."

"Now who's a hedonist?" Starsky smiled, enjoying himself and the mellow mood they had created. Finished with the towels, he headed back into the bedroom, where he helped Hutch into his pajama bottoms.

"You lay down on your stomach, and I'll rub your back," he directed. Hutch settled onto the mattress gratefully, eyes closing. Starsky pulled a tiny bottle from his suitcase and let the fragrant lotion warm in his hands before laying them on Hutch's shoulders. He massaged slowly, gently, feeling no resistance or tension under his hands. His palms swept down Hutch's sides, conscious of the ribs under the flesh, then stroked back up the center of his back. He worked carefully, hands in concert, traveling down the spine and into the lower back. Slipping the pajama pants down a little, he smoothed the slim buttocks, knowing how tired those muscles had to be from sitting all day on the plane. Hutch's hips wriggled a little, reacting to the touches, and Starsky smiled, enjoying the feel of the creamy flesh under his hands. He found himself sighing, too, the comfort of being this close to Hutch, being able to help him, warming him with contentedness.

Hutch's breathing was becoming deep and regular. Starsky readjusted the pajama bottoms and pulled up the sheet and blanket to cover the bare shoulders. Hutch shifted position, getting comfortable, pulling the pillow under his head. His eyes were closed, his expression happy. Starsky placed a gentle hand on his friend's head, holding it there for a moment in silence.

"Goodnight, Hutch," he whispered finally "Sleep well. We'll be getting home tomorrow."

A subtle smile playing around the full, soft lips was his only answer. Starsky straightened, feeling a crick in his own back. He headed back to the bathroom, where he pulled off his clothes and turned the shower on, making the water as hot as he could stand. He climbed in and stood under the spray for a long time, deliberately blanking his thoughts. Don't think now about the past, don't worry about the future, he told himself, you've got now. Live for this moment. That's all we can do. And the moments we've been having have been pretty good.

His own body was protesting the fact that he was still on his feet. Starsky turned off the taps and climbed out of the shower, finding one last towel to rub over himself. He dropped it over the edge of the tub when he was finished and headed for the bedroom, stopping only to retrieve a clean pair of briefs from his suitcase. He pulled them on, dimmed the lights and was under the covers of his own bed in less than a minute. Lying there, fatigue wrapping him a drifting, sleep-seeking lethargy, his eyes opened to dwell on the sight of Hutch, slumbering beside him. Only the space of a few feet of carpet kept them separate.

If I dared, I'd crawl in next to him. Just to hold him in my arms for one night... is that too much to ask?

Hutch shifted in his sleep, the long body moving crosswise on the double bed, taking up more space and letting Starsky know that he needed it for himself. Must feel good to him to be able to stretch out like that, after all that time in that narrow bed back at the hospital. The peaceful face comforted Starsky, and he slipped into sleep with that image in his mind.

********

"Stars-ky! Wake up!"

Damn! Must've overslept for work again. Hutch's here already! Starsky jerked awake, sitting up in the bed so quickly his head spun a little. He looked around, trying to get his bearings and found he wasn't home in his own bedroom after all. The voice calling insistently had been like a flash of deja-vu, sending him back in time. He rubbed a hand over his face, and turned to look at the speaker.

Hutch was sitting up in bed, too, his blond hair tousled. His eyes were wide and eager, welcoming Starsky to the new day. Feeling as though everything were falling back into perspective, Starsky grinned over at him.

"I see you're awake. Okay, what'll it be? Breakfast first, or a walk on the beach?"

Hutch didn't take long to answer. "The beach."

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

The air was sweet and fresh. And warm. It caught Starsky unaware as he wheeled Hutch's chair through the doors of their hotel and outside. He blinked in the sunshine, his whole body echoing in the relief provided by the sun after the grey months in wintry Australia.

He heard a gasping sigh and looked down. Hutch's face was rapt, turned up to the sky, his expression open and hopeful as a boy's. His eyes caught the light, and began to sparkle as blue as the Hawaiian firmament.

"Beautiful." Starsky sighed too, meaning the man at his side as much as nature's panorama. And then Hutch met his eyes, sharing a wide, delighted smile. Starsky reached down to squeeze his friend's shoulders. "Been a long time since we've seen sun like this, hasn't it?"

"Long time?" Hutch echoed his words, sounding faintly puzzled. Starkly patted his shoulder and then began maneuvering the wheelchair down the ramp and out toward the sidewalk paralleling the beach. It was a clear day, yet the sun wasn't so intense they couldn't stand it. Hutch squinted a little, his eyes unaccustomed to the brightness, but he wouldn't wear the sunglasses Starsky bought for him. They set off, heading in the general direction of Diamond Head, the great black mountain volcano that overshadowed the entire island.

It was early yet, but there were lots of people. All of them seemed intent on their own pursuits, so few took notice of the men dressed somewhat out of step with the season; both of them were clad in winter-colored shirts and heavy jeans. As the breeze swept over the sand, Starsky paused to roll up his sleeves. Hutch reached up to slip open the top buttons of his own shirt and Starsky caught the gesture out of the corner of his eye. Right now, Hutch looked no different than he had loosening his buttons in the old days.

They passed a pineapple juice stand and Starsky parked Hutch's chair next to a bench, then went inside to get them something to drink. When he returned, he found Hutch staring out to sea, eyes seeming to search for something. Their poignant expression touched Starsky's heart.

"Here," he said, offering the cold juice and clearing his throat. Hutch looked up at him, and there was moisture in the corners of his eyes.

Starsky sat down, feeling the need to have something firm under him. He gripped Hutch's wrist. "You feelin' okay?"

Hutch nodded, and the wistful gaze returned to scan the horizon.

"Try some of this juice, then. It's good."

Hutch dutifully took the cup and sipped. They sat there for a moment, quiet yet not really at peace.

"Starsky?" Hutch's voice finally emerged. It sounded so lost.

"What, babe?" Starsky slid closer to him, taking the cup of juice out of his fingers and sitting it next to him on the bench. He reached to brush back a strand of hair that had blown into Hutch's eyes.

"Will you tell me... what happened? Please?"

Starsky was not totally unprepared for the question. He had sensed it lurking under the surface of Hutch's acceptance of the situation, seen the flickers of self-doubt and confusion in the shadowed eyes from time to time. Suddenly he felt a kind of relief, as if having it all come out in the open would relieve the need for pretense between them. Hutch knew enough to realize that things weren't right. Starsky wanted to reassure him. And even more than that, he wanted desperately to learn just what Hutch did remember about his life, about what happened to him, about everything.

Yet it was difficult deciding where to begin. He reached out and took one of Hutch's hands. "Remember your birthday?" he broached the subject gently. Hutch nodded. "You couldn't read the card I gave you, could you? And I told you... you'd been hit on the head. Remember?"

"You said so." Hutch's eyes looked blank; did he remember Starsky telling him that, or did he retain the event itself?

"Maybe..." Starsky began again, then hesitated and sighed. "Maybe you can tell me what you do remember. Okay? Do you remember your job, Hutch? What you do for a living?"

The light eyes closed for a moment, reopening with a look of intense concentration. Hutch's lips parted; he looked as though he were groping for the proper words. One hand reached up to his left armpit, the way he had on the plane. "C-cover?" The word was faint. The blond head shook. "Gun... I... carry a gun."

"Right," Starsky encouraged. "Do you know what the job is?" He hesitated, wanting to see if Hutch could find the title himself. But as the precise term evaded him, Starsky could see his returning confusion. He patted the hand he held. "We're cops, remember? Detectives."

A smile blossomed on the man's face and he nodded happily. "Cops. You and me."

"That's right! And you remember where, doncha? What city?"

Hutch thought for a few seconds again. "Min... Duluth?" It came out as a question.

"Not quite. That's your hometown. Try for someplace a little further west... like California."

Hutch's brows knit, his eyes scanned the waves as if for inspiration. His fingers, growing moist, clenched tightly on Starsky's.

"Hey, it's okay. Los Angeles, buddy. I don't blame ya, sometimes I'd like to forget the name of the place myself." He tried for some levity, but knew it was falling flat. "Now, do you -- "

"No!" Hutch looked at him, eyes strained with some indefinable emotion. "I ask you. What happened... to me?"

Instantly contrite, Starsky shifted, moving as close to Hutch as he could. "Take it easy. It's gonna be okay. I'll tell you -- don't worry. I was just... tryin' to see what you did remember." He drew in a shaky breath. "I'm not sure of all the details myself. I know that you were working one day, tailing somebody. And somehow, you were nabbed. Abducted. They put you on a plane -- you do remember that, right?"

"Plane." Hutch's lips silently formed the word.

"That's it. That's why it scared you when we got on the airplane yesterday. You remember that. They took you out of the country, Hutch, all the way to Australia..." He could tell from the watching eyes that here he was losing him. "Anyway, they beat you up, I guess. And they... they gave you a shot." His heart was beginning to feel like someone was trying to wring all the blood and feeling out of it. His voice was quavering even as he asked the next question. "Do you remember them giving you a shot?"

"Shot?" Hutch whispered the word, sounding like he'd learned it by rote. His hand went to his temple. "Shot me? In my head -- ?"

Starsky couldn't bear the look of fright that came as the words trailed off. He reached for Hutch, wanting to surround him with comfort, keep the fear outside and never let it touch him again. "No. Not that. They gave you a shot... with a needle." He let his finger slide to the inside of Hutch's elbow, knowing how the eyes were watching. "Drugs. To knock you out." The words came tumbling out of him then and nothing could have stopped them. "They knocked you out, made you go to sleep. You couldn't wake up... for a real long time. Do you... do you understand? You were in a coma, buddy." He swallowed hard, drew a breath. "That's why you have a hard time talking and remembering... and -- and doing things. But you're fine now. You just need some therapy to get back to the way you were again. You're gonna be just as good as new..." He ran out of words, then. And he couldn't meet Hutch's eyes. Instead, he turned his face away, picking up his forgotten cup and swirling the pineapple juice around.

A hand reached out and brushed his cheek. Starsky's tired, wrung-out heart seemed to start beating again at the gesture. He blinked, trying to rid his eyes of their tears, and looked up at Hutch.

"I'm okay." He dredged up half a smile. "How 'bout you?"

"Let's go home, Starsky. Can we?"

He felt a certain amount of relief that, for the moment, Hutch seemed to have no more questions. Perhaps he had heard all he could handle, and comprehend, for now. "Sure. It's time we got you back where you belong. But our plane doesn't leave for another couple of hours. We have time to have some breakfast and to stay out here and watch the waves for a while longer. Is that okay with you?"

Hutch nodded, patting Starsky's hand as if to comfort him. "Breakfast. Okay."

As long as his appetite was still good, Starsky figured that Hutch was doing all right.

********

Wikki-wikki bus... Hutch turned the new word over in his mind. Starsky had explained to him that here in Hawaii that was the word for 'hurry'. He agreed, feeling like he wanted to hurry up and get back home. He hadn't realized, when Starsky had explained that they would take a long trip to get home from the hospital, that it would take quite this amount of time. He was anxious to get there, anxious to see things that were familiar to him. Perhaps, he thought, maybe he would be able to do more once he was home, because everything wouldn't seem so strange anymore.

Starsky's words of explanation had helped a little. But as always, not quite all of his words made complete sense. Coma... There it was again, scaring him just as much as it had when he'd heard it before. Who were those people with the lights and microphones at the hospital? Why did they want to ask him questions, he wondered. Drugs, Starsky said. Put me to sleep for a long time. A long time... how... how long? Hutch rubbed a hand roughly over his face, trying to blot the question out of his head. He tried to focus on the other things Starsky had said. 'You're fine now... just need some therapy... good as new.' He had to believe those words, the alternative was too frightening. Then why did Starsky look so upset when he said them? There's more he's not saying... and I can't ask him...

They had arrived at the air terminal. It took a lot of effort to get off the tram and collect all their things, then Starsky was pushing Hutch's chair along a covered walkway that led to where they would get on the plane. Hutch sat back, trying to relax in the warm breeze. One more plane ride... then we'll be home...