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Distant Shores

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CHAPTER III

 

'"Are you going to the reception, Dave?"

Sally Hagan's question seemed to come out of the blue. "What?" Starsky asked, totally confused. He'd been looking over the list of officers promoted to sergeant.

She pointed to the notice next to the sergeant's list on the bulletin board. "The reception they're having for Captain Dobey."

'Honoring Captain Harold Dobey for thirty years of service,' the notice proclaimed. Starsky nodded. The reception was marked on his calendar and had been for weeks, though he hadn't realized it was coming so soon. He wanted to help Dobey commemorate the occasion. Still, it would seem odd to go to a party. He hadn't done anything like that in years.

"Of course I'm going," he answered Sally. "I'll stop by and shake his hand, maybe hang out for awhile, but I don't think I'll be staying long."

"Why not? It should be fun. How many times does this entire department have a chance to socialize?"

"Check out Eddie's bar any night of the week," Starsky scoffed. He had things to do, so he turned to head down the corridor toward his office.

Sally kept up with him. "C'mon, Dave. You really should spend the evening. How long has Dobey been your Captain?"

Starsky stopped in the hallway. "It's on Saturday. I usually spend the day and evening with Hutch."

"Oh." Sally's protest was quelled for an instant. Then, before Starsky could turn away, her eyes lit up even more brightly. "Why don't you bring Hutch to the reception?"

"What?"

"Bring him along. Don't you think the hospital would let him out for the evening?"

The idea hadn't occurred to Starsky. "They might," he considered, "but I don't know if he's really ready to handle a large group of people. He's still actin' kinda shell-shocked since he found out how long he was out."

"Then it ought to do him good to see people, to begin to participate in activities again. He always got along well with the Captain. He probably would enjoy going to the reception. He'd get the chance to see a lot of his old friends from the force. And you wouldn't have to keep him out too long. When he gets tired, you can take him back."

Starsky thought the idea over, beginning to see that it might be worked out. It would be nice to see him somewhere other than the clinical setting, he decided. Like we were on the trip home, the two of us, goin' places together again. "The change might do him good at that," he conceded. "I'll talk to his doctors and see what they think."

Sally smiled and squeezed his arm. "The change might do you some good, too."

"I'll see you later," Starsky said, pulling away. "I've got a lot of paperwork to catch up on."

********

It had taken most of the day, but Hutch was finally ready to go to the party. He sat before the mirror in his hospital room, carefully combing his hair. The task was still difficult; he did not have complete control or strength in his hand yet. But he wanted very much to finish the process of getting ready by himself.

Just as he lay down the comb, the door to his room opened. Starsky, grinning, poked his head in.

"All ready?" he asked, eyebrows on the rise. Hutch broke into a smile.

The door opened the rest of the way and as Hutch watched, not one but two visitors came in. Behind Starsky, wearing a bright but tentative smile of her own, was a young woman.

A tingle of nervousness edged its way down Hutch's back. He'd put off worrying about recognizing people, figuring that wouldn't happen until they actually arrived at the party. This was... too soon. He wasn't prepared. His confidence, never on solid ground these days, was about to slip into a canyon.

"Do you remember Sally, Hutch?" Starsky spoke up, drawing her near by the hand he was holding. "Sally Hagan -- we were on her first big case. I mentioned she was one of my detectives now."

"Oh." Hutch did recall Starsky talking about her. Quite a lot in the last couple of weeks, now that he thought about it. He looked the woman over, responding to her smile, yet still feeling somewhat uncomfortable. As had happened with other visitors, he didn't know what he should do or say.

"I invited myself along with you and Dave," Sally explained. "I just couldn't wait to see you again, Hutch." She came forward, reaching for his hand, as Starsky let go of hers. She grasped his fingers and crouched to see eye-to-eye with him. "It's wonderful to see you." The words were whispered.

"Good to... see you, too, Sally," Hutch managed. "Do I look all right?"

"You sure do," she grinned, standing up again and taking Starsky by the arm. "Dave said he shopped especially for that new sweater and slacks."

Hutch looked down self-consciously. He'd been pleased with the navy and cream sweater and dark trousers Starsky had picked out for him. They fit better than the jeans from Australia. In the new outfit, Hutch had begun to feel nearly 'normal' -- not at all like the sick person he had begun to identify himself as.

"I'm a little surprised to see you all set to go," Starsky spoke up. "I thought I might be in time to give you a hand or something."

Hutch looked at him, not quite knowing what to make of that comment. He had felt proud of his ability to get cleaned up and dressed unaided. "Didn't you think I could do it?" he couldn't help asking.

The left side of Starsky's mouth curved upward in a sheepish grin. "It's not that I didn't think you could..." He stopped, took a breath. "You did real good, buddy. I knew this party idea was a good one from the very beginning." His glance moved to include Sally.

The woman laughed out loud. "Yeah, that's why I had to point it out to you on the bulletin board that day. Why I had to keep after you to get the doctor's permission to take Hutch." She shook her head, winking conspiratorially at Hutch. "That's the boss for you -- takes his employees' ideas and then hogs all the credit."

She was joking, Hutch could tell that, but he was unsure of how he should respond. There was something so familiar in the way Sally interacted with his friend; he couldn't put his finger on it, but it made him feel somewhat left out.

Starsky, however, turned his full attention on Hutch, beaming down at him, reaching to touch the just-combed hair that spilled over his forehead. "You look great. It's gonna be so good to go to that party together." There was the light of reminiscence in his eyes, and the feeling warmed Hutch.

"Can we go now?" he asked, wanting to get started. He had been anticipating the event for so long, he just couldn't wait any longer.

"We sure can." Starsky brought the chrome walker and helped Hutch get up, steadying him until he had a firm hold on the walker. Then they started out of the room together.

At the reception desk, he paused to check Hutch out officially. Mrs. Kelly, the social worker, was there, along with Paul Kennedy, the head of the hospital. Both of them wished Hutch well on his first sojourn out of the institution. The process of walking took longer than riding in the wheelchair, but Hutch was glad to be moving under his own steam. Tonight, he didn't even mind the fact that Starsky and Sally had to stand close at his elbows, watching, keeping an eye on his progress. Starsky was always ready to reach out in case he lost his rather precarious balance.

And then they were on their way. Hutch looked around eagerly as they emerged into the sunlight, anxious for his first ride in Starsky's car. But he couldn't find the Torino. "Starsk?" he asked, making sure he was steady before letting go of one side of the walker to tug at his friend's sleeve. "Where's your car?"

"Right over there." Starsky nodded toward a low-slung black model pulled up to the curb.

A hollow feeling swept over Hutch, and for a moment, he was unable to speak. Then he swallowed hoarsely and tried to ask his question. "Where's the... your car?"

"Oh." That was all Starsky said for a moment. He came around beside Hutch. "I had to get this one, finally. The Torino just wouldn't take the potholes in these streets any longer. It's a Camaro, 350 liter engine, plenty of speed. You'll like it."

Hutch didn't know what to say. More changes... nothing is the same as I remember.... "At least it... isn't red," he whispered finally, hoping that by teasing his friend his own spirits would lighten.

"I love red cars!" Starsky defended himself staunchly. "Almost got this one in red. But I couldn't wait long enough for it to come in to the dealer in that color. I needed wheels." He shrugged, eyes slipping over the new car and then into the distance. "But the old Torino is still around. I... couldn't get rid of it, when it came right down to it. It's in my backyard, up on cinder blocks. I keep thinking I'll get the time to go out and do some work on it..."

"Couldn't..." Hutch groped for the name, "Merle do something with it?" He sensed Starsky's pain, wanted to help.

"Oh, he moved back east a year ago. Besides... it just wasn't the same, riding in the Torino after you..." His words again petered out.

Hutch reached for his friend's arm, needing to touch him.

"Come on, you two," Sally spoke up. "We'd better get going before the traffic on the freeway is completely impossible."

"Yeah." Starsky cleared his throat, shoving his hair back with the hand Hutch had reached for. He moved away, fishing for his car keys in his jacket pocket. In a moment, all three of them were involved in the business of getting Hutch and his walker stowed in the car. Hutch looked over at Sally, wondering again why he felt odd about her impromptu arrival in their midst. Had her speaking up served to diffuse the painful moment that had occurred between Starsky and him, or had her presence been more of an interference? He wasn't sure; didn't think he could analyze the idea further. She was okay, he remembered liking her, but he felt out of kilter with her around now.

When they were ready to depart, Sally was ensconced in the back seat, and Hutch was feeling better. This was the way things should be -- himself in the passenger seat, right next to his partner. Even though it was a different car, it was still Starsky's. Hutch recognized the care that went into keeping the dashboard neat and dust-free, noted the police band radio and hand-mike, the red mars light for the roof, the switch for the siren. And hanging from the rearview mirror was a little trinket, this one a kangaroo that had been in Hutch's hospital room in Adelaide. Starsky liked things neat, but he also loved to decorate. He always made the space he occupied uniquely his own. Hutch smoothed his palms over the leather seats, feeling comfortable, at home.

"All set, partner," he said at last, his voice hushed.

"Zebra Three, logging in," Starsky grinned, turning the key and starting the car with a flourish. He gunned the motor and they shot out of the hospital parking lot, into the street. Behind him, Hutch heard Sally gasp a little at the speed and the swerving motion, but he ignored her. He felt fine, pushed back against the upholstery by Starsky's driving. Feels like home.

It was three o'clock in the afternoon, but already the surface street was clogged with traffic. The cars fascinated Hutch; they all looked so different to him -- some were like midget cars, smaller than his own Belle, like toys instead of vehicles for men. Others were sleek, painted in strange hues, resembling science fiction ideas of transportation for the future. Guess this is the future, he reflected, feeling more bemused than upset by the notion. It was a great big world out here and Hutch found himself wanting to explore it, to find out how he could fit in. Most of it was pretty familiar. Maybe it won't be so bad. All I have to do is get used to a few things...

Starsky stopped for a red light before turning onto Renaldi Street. Hutch gazed out the window at a group of teenagers waiting to cross the street. His eyes opened wide as he took in their purple-dyed hair, cropped close on one side and hanging long on the other, the big safety pins attached to their clothes and -- their skin, too?! "Starsk?" he asked, "is this the way... all the kids look?"

"Huh?" Starsky was busy watching traffic. "Oh." He glanced toward the group but didn't seem much bothered by their appearances. "You'll get used to it. It's just a bit more extreme than the punk fashions you used to bitch about. Remember?"

"Not exactly." Hutch shook his head, craning his neck as his curiosity about the changes grew. At the next corner, he could hear a radio blaring. "Look, Starsk!" He pointed with excitement at a group of black teens cavorting on the sidewalk. Some stood in a semi circle, clapping to the music screaming from a huge chrome radio, while two in the middle spun on their rear ends, then leapt to their feet and flipped over backwards.

"That's break-dancing," Sally informed him. "It's just a fad. They say it started on the streets, like these kids are doing it, but I hear they've been doin' it at the discos lately, too. They're even having dance contests where people do it."

"Break-dancing," Hutch mused, assimilating the term. "Guess they do break a lot..." He looked over at Starsky.

"Yeah," his friend picked up smoothly, "mostly their necks." Starsky let out a chagrined laugh. "Man, do we sound like a buncha old fogies or what?"

The Camaro turned onto the 405 Freeway on-ramp and the sound of the kids' music faded. "Turn on the radio, Starsk," Hutch asked.

Starsky tuned automatically to the station Hutch often listened to at the hospital, one that specialized in oldies from the sixties and early seventies.

"No. Get something recent," Hutch urged, anxious to continue his sampling of things new.

"Okay. But you'll be sorry." Shaking his head, Starsky punched the dial and selected a station that blared with rhythms so novel Hutch was fascinated. This wasn't the acoustic sound he loved so well, nor even the solid rock beat he enjoyed. It was clanking, dissonant, raw sounding, with lyrics as bizarre as the tunes. "What do they mean, 'whip it good?'" he wondered. Both Starsky and Sally just laughed.

"I can't take it," Starsky chuckled a moment later. "This stuff is too much even for me." He adjusted the radio again, choosing something more in line with the music Hutch usually favored. This was a song that wasn't familiar to him, but he did recognize the voice and the style. He sat back, listening with acute pleasure, as happy that he could bring to mind the name and the face of the performer as he was to note the beauty of the song itself. It was same easy, confidant voice that could also be raised in the most strident of rock screams; the sound was melodic and pure, with echoes of yesteryear, the music of the man who had made Hutch want to learn guitar. He was singing about the woman he loved... Hutch spoke in a near-whisper. "That's John. John Lennon. He finally recorded a new album! When'd it come out, Starsk? Can you get me a copy?"

"Sure." Starsky seemed distracted. From the back seat, Sally cleared her throat.

"I guess it's still in the stores," she said, sounding a bit subdued.

"Starsk?" The song ended and Starsky abruptly leaned forward to switch off the radio before another one began.

"Yeah, that was John Lennon," Starsky said at last, his voice sober. "The album came out, oh, I guess almost a year ago now."

Hutch nodded, unable to interpret his friend's quietude yet feeling a prickle of curiosity. "I haven't missed a Beatles reunion or anything have I?"

"No." Starsky switched lanes to make the transition to the 101 West, the Camaro slipping between two flashy trucks on oversized tires "John's dead, Hutch." The dark blue eyes stayed on the road.

"What?" Speared with shock, Hutch gasped. What could have happened? Illness, heart attack...? Lennon was only a few years older than they were...

"He was murdered outside his apartment in New York," Starsky said bluntly. "By some psycho. Guy came up and asked for his autograph earlier in the day. Later, John and Yoko were on their way out -- and he just shot him. Four times or something, wasn't it, Sally? Lennon died on the way to the hospital."

The car swerved as Starsky changed lanes again, picking up speed as if its driver wanted to leave the words he'd said back with the slower moving traffic. But they stayed there with them, buzzing around Hutch like flies you couldn't get rid of around a garbage can.

He felt suddenly helpless, swamped by feelings he couldn't accept. John Lennon -- murdered? It couldn't be. Assassination happened to statesmen, murder to ordinary people, but... not to men like Lennon, a musician, an artist... It was like a chunk of his youth and dreams had been blown away, Hutch thought, staggered by the implications. Mine and everybody's. And I didn't even know. Jesus, what else has gone dawn in this hostile world while I've been asleep? Do I even want to ask?

"I heard some cops rushed him to the hospital. They put him in the back seat of their unit." Sally spoke from the back seat, her voice strangely hoarse. "I remember reading in 'People' that they asked him if he knew who he was... and he said he was John Lennon... that must have been about the last thing he said..."

There were tears in her voice, Hutch could hear them plainly. He squeezed his own eyes shut, recognizing the familiar burning sting, the knowledge that he was about to lose control of his fragile emotions.

His friend's eyes were on him, Hutch could feel them. "Shit, Sally, didya hafta say that?" Starsky muttered without malice.

She cleared her throat again. "Sorry, Dave. I'm sorry, Hutch." A soft hand came to rest on Hutch's shoulder. He looked away, though the images outside the window were blurred and not just from the speed of their passing. No one in the car spoke for many minutes.

Finally, Starsky pulled off the 101, and Hutch began to recognize the businesses and houses they were passing.

"Where's the party going to happen?" he asked, hoping the strained feelings would soon dissipate.

"At the Bonaventure Hotel," Starsky told him. "Remember being undercover there as hairdressers?"

Hairdressers? Hutch shook his head.

"You know -- Mr. Marlene and Mr. Tyrone." Starsky wiggled his eyebrows. "Doez zat not zound famil-ee-aire?" he went on in an outrageous accent.

Hutch gaped at him. He was drawing a complete blank.

"I heard the stories about that case," Sally piped up, giggling. "Looks like Hutch managed to put it out of his mind altogether."

"Lucky bastard." Starsky was still smiling, but at least his voice had returned to normal. For once Hutch decided not to worry about having forgotten something from the past.

Within moments, they pulled up in front of the hotel. The facade of the building was familiar to Hutch, and he spent a few seconds hoping seeing the inside didn't trigger a more complete memory of the bizarre case.

The trip inside the building and up inside the glass elevator to the room where the party was to take place seemed an arduous one. Hutch wasn't fully comfortable with using the walker. Around the hospital, he didn't mind that it took him a long time to get down the hall. Here, however, the bustling of other people, people without similar disabilities, seemed to highlight his own weakness. The noise and movement of so many people made it hard to concentrate on coordinating his steps with all the activity around him.

A light hand hovered near his elbow. "You okay, buddy?" Starsky's voice asked, very softly, pitched so that no one else, not even Sally, could hear.

Hutch nodded, tightening his grip on the walker, determined that he could make it to their destination. He was feeling a little shaky; the muscles of his arms and his legs were beginning to quiver, but he kept on, not wanting to stumble in front of so many watchers and, particularly, not in front of Starsky.

They finally arrived at the ballroom where the reception was already in full swing. Tons of people, lots of men and women in police blue, others dressed in cocktail dresses and suits, jostled together, smiling, laughing, carrying small plates laden with food, cups overflowing with beverages. Hutch stopped still, amazed at the crowd's size, suddenly embarrassed by his awkwardness. He turned to look for Starsky.

"Here we are, I guess," his friend quipped, peering into the crowd to get his bearings. "There's some tables along the wall over there. Let's get you a seat, okay?"

By the time they neared the tables arranged along the far wall, Hutch was nearly at the end of his strength. His palms were sweating and his hands began to slip on the handles of the walker. His steps were faltering. I'm gonna fall down in front of all these people... Then he felt Starsky's hand at his waist, at once bracing and encouraging him. Sally hurried ahead and pulled a chair out for him and he sank down on it gratefully as soon as he was close enough. She then took the walker and put it aside behind the table.

"There. We're all settled," she announced, appearing pleased. Hutch thought she sounded just like the nurses. He was getting decidedly tired of that tone of voice.

"All right, all right -- now we're ready to party!" Starsky was getting that effusive, eager inflection in his voice, and Hutch couldn't help smiling when he heard it. Starsky pulled up a chair, rubbed his hands together and looked directly at Hutch. "So, whaddya want to eat? Any little thing your heart desires, m'sieur -- within reason, of course."

"Oh, I don't know..." He thought for a minute, then grinned. "You know the kinda stuff I like. Surprise me. Anything that you can't get in a hospital, okay?"

"You got it, babe." Winking, Starsky jumped up and started toward the buffet table. "You coming, Sally?"

"Uh..."she hesitated. "Shouldn't I stay here with Hutch?"

"Oh, he'll be okay for a minute, won't you, Hutch?" Starsky reached for the woman's elbow, his eyes still holding his partner's gaze. "He hates to be mother-henned, y'know." With another wink in Hutch's direction, he led her off through the crowd.

The teasing felt delightful. Hutch realized he hadn't seen Starsky behave quite like this in a long, long time. Most of the time, when he did make a joke, the gaiety seemed forced, done to humor the patient. This was real. Starsky was open, enjoying himself already. He said it would be good for me to get out -- seems like it's gonna be good for him, too.

The crowd had swallowed up Starsky and Sally, so Hutch sat there, people- watching for a while. He was aware that he didn't know any of the men and women he saw, yet he wasn't uncomfortable or overwhelmed by the strangers around him. It was as though he did this sort of thing every day.

One man that looked somewhat familiar ambled up to his table and kind of bent down to get a look at him. "Do I know you, fella?" he asked in a voice slightly slurred by his party drink.

"I'm... not sure," Hutch equivocated, not wanting to reveal that he didn't recognize him in case it was someone he had known well.

"Hey, that's all right. We're all brother cops, aren't we?" The man put out a large hand, and Hutch took it, shaking it in response.

"Yeah." A slow smile spread over his face. "We're all cops."

"You ever work directly under Captain Dobey?" the fellow questioned.

Hutch nodded, feeling more and more at ease. "Yes. My partner and I..."

"Hey, Ernie!" A shout from across the way caught Hutch's companion's attention. "I thought you went to get some more dessert!"

Ernie shrugged, started to meander away. Hutch tried to keep him involved in conversation, saying the first thing that jumped into his mind. "Say, did you hear about John Lennon getting killed?"

The man turned, favoring him with a peculiar, speculative look. "John Lennon?"

Hutch nodded. "Shot to death." The pain was still fresh for him. "Isn't that terrible?"

"Yeah... it sure was... I guess."

Ernie's friend came up to him. "Say, what's goin' on?"

The big man caught his friend's eye. "This guy was just tellin' me about John Lennon being murdered." The look held between the two of them for a moment, and Hutch watched as smiles fought for control of the smirking faces. Ernie's eyes rolled toward the ceiling, and Hutch knew he had said something wrong. He didn't protest when the two men walked away.

He couldn't help following them with his eyes, however. They took seats at a table not far away from his own, putting their heads together but not bothering to lower their voices as they spoke.

"So, who's the geek?" the second man asked as soon as they sat down.

"I dunno." Ernie tossed back the remainder of his drink. "They must be lettin' retards on the force these days."

"What?"

"He said he's a cop!"

The laughter between them stung Hutch deeply.

"What's so funny?" Another man joined the group.

"Guy over there," Ernie's friend nodded, enjoying the joke. "He's kinda... slow, I guess."

"Told me he's a cop, but..." Ernie began.

The newcomer looked his direction and Hutch wished he could disappear.

"Hey, he is a cop. Or at least, he used to be."

"Huh?" Both Ernie and his friend were doubtful.

"Yeah -- didn't you hear? That's Hutchinson. Lieutenant Starsky's partner. He was kidnapped -- disappeared for a couple of years. They finally found him and he's been in pretty bad shape, I heard. I'm surprised to see him here. I thought he was still in the hospital."

"Shit. I guess I do remember hearing something about him." Ernie sounded apologetic.

"Damn," his friend contributed, "I hope nobody overheard what we were sayin' about him. If it gets back to the Lieutenant..."

"No shit. We'll be in the jackpot for sure."

"Don't you think he heard?" the newly arrived man asked, sotto voce, eyes glancing in Hutch's direction.

Hutch quickly looked away, acutely embarrassed. He could hear chairs being pushed back and knew the men were approaching him again. He just wanted them to go away and leave him alone.

"Say, you're Detective Hutchinson, aren't you?" a kind voice said.

He spoke without looking up. "Yes."

"Good to see you, sir." A hand was extended toward him.

Hutch finally peered up. All three men stood there, one with his hand outstretched. Cautiously, Hutch took it. His hand was shaken firmly, while the other two shifted their feet and looked uncomfortable.

"What's goin' on?" Starsky had returned with a couple of overloaded plates.

"Oh -- nothing, Lieutenant," Ernie was quick to answer. "We uh... just realized that Sergeant Hutchinson was here."

"I see." From the tone of his voice, it was obvious that he didn't.

"Uh..." Ernie stammered again, then shrugged and leaned toward Hutch. "I hope you didn't think we meant anything by what we were saying, Sergeant. I guess I've had a little too much to drink..." The strained voice trailed off and Hutch was grateful when the three wandered away at last.

"What was all that about?" Starsky asked as he sat down and settled a plate in front of Hutch.

He just shrugged his shoulders, unable to put any of the incident into words. He stared down at the plate of food, not really seeing it, while echoes lingered in his mind. Geek... retard... That must be what I seem like now. Starsky's partner... They'd used those words too, but they seemed as mocking as the derisive ones. Not much left for me to give to a partner, is there?

"Hutch?" Starsky's voice was edged with uncertainty. "If those bastards were bothering you..."

Hutch cringed. He didn't want Starsky to fight his battles for him, didn't want to feel as though he needed defending, not from insulting words. He just wanted to forget the incident. "I'm okay." He sighed, trying to find something else to say. "The food looks good."

Starsky grinned once more, apparently satisfied that Hutch was all right. "I picked out all your favorites. Sally's bringing the drinks."

"Oh." Hutch felt his barely regained equilibrium shift again. He'd prefer to just sit there with Starsky. They didn't need the company of anyone else. Why is she here? Did she want to check out the 'geek', too?

"Look who I found!" Sally announced brightly as she returned. Beside her were Captain Dobey and his wife. Edith looked beautiful in an elegant red dress. Dobey was in a tuxedo.

Starsky stuck out his hand, his grin widening. "Congratulations, sir!"

"Hmph," Dobey grumbled. "You've never called me 'sir' in your entire career, and meant it."

"Hey, there's a first time for everything," Starsky wisecracked. "Just like there's a first time for you to put on a tux! Look, there's a spot on your shirt already."

Dobey glanced down, looking annoyed. He brushed ineffectively at the stain with a crumpled napkin. "I know..."

"You can dress 'em up but you can't take 'em out," Starsky laughed.

"I seem to remember a certain tuxedo that you rented, officer." Dobey's voice rumbled ominously. "Isn't it true that the rental company wouldn't even take the thing back?"

"I don't remember a thing," Starsky said, straight-faced, attempting to pull dignity around him.

Hutch chuckled. "I remember that. First the seam split down the back..."

"That was your fault!" his partner declared.

"Then you dropped a chili dog right in your -- "

"Enough!" Edith broke in. "Can't you people stop carrying on even for a little while? I want to tell Hutch how good it is to see him."

Hutch smiled up at her, completely at ease at the reception for the first time. "I'm glad to be here," he said with heartfelt emotion. "Congratulations, Captain."

Dobey smiled at him with affection. "It makes my night that you could come to this, Hutch."

The group continued chatting for a while, and Hutch was able to contribute to the conversation. It pleased him that no one paid him extravagant compliments about his remembering Starsky's tuxedo, or the other things he said. He felt more like a perfectly normal person. He picked up a plastic fork and began eating the food Starsky had brought him, enjoying the varied tastes of nachos, fruit salad, pasta and crisp veggies.

Gradually, the Dobeys drifted away, but soon a steady stream of people began to pass by their table. Word had apparently spread that Hutch was at the reception, and everyone seemed eager to greet him, to welcome him back. He put the awkward incident with Ernie and his friends out of his mind, and began to enjoy himself.

Minnie Kaplan displayed the warmest reaction to his presence. She rushed toward him at full speed, grabbing him around the shoulders and hugging tight.

"Baby, I never thought I'd see you again!" she enthused, laughing and crying at the same time.

Hutch got a grip on the woman's shoulders, and drew back a little from the unexpected embrace. It took him a full minute to recognize the face.

"Minnie?"

"It's me." She wiped her eyes unashamedly. "Hutch, darlin', you sure are a sight!"

He looked down at himself. "I... guess I have lost a little weight..."

Minnie laughed. "Not so much that you still aren't the most gorgeous cop in the place, sugar."

"Are you..." he searched for the right word, "flirting with me?"

"You bet I am," Minnie winked, then pulled up a seat and settled in for an informal chat.

It didn't seem to matter whether or not Hutch made appropriate comments or knew the name of everyone who came up. He was out in the world, fitting in, interacting. It felt very good. Minnie stayed and talked for a while, and others he had worked with continued to stop by the table. Hutch was warmed by their welcome-home sentiments.

During a lull in conversation, he glanced over at Starsky. His friend seemed more relaxed than usual, too. So often, Starsky was tense, on his guard, trying so hard to be helpful and encouraging to Hutch. When was the last time he got out like this and had some fun? Hutch wondered.

When everyone had had enough time to eat and drink their fill, Police Commissioner Robert Rogers came up to a lectern and called the gathering to order. "We're here this evening to honor Captain Harold Dobey for thirty years of service on the police force of this city. I think everyone will agree with me when I say that he has continued to serve and protect the citizens while commanding the respect of the officers and men under him. Captain Dobey, it is with great pride that I present you with this gold watch as a token of our thanks and esteem."

Hutch clapped with the rest of the assemblage, thinking back to his first months working under Dobey. He and Starsky had just been partnered... The memories were very sweet.

After the formal speeches, music flowed over the sound system and couples began to take to the floor to dance. Starsky, Sally and Hutch sat quietly for a while, just watching them.

Hutch became aware of Starsky's fingers tapping in rhythm on the table, his body moving unconsciously to the beat. You used to go dancing for hours at a time, Hutch mused, recalling evenings they'd spent at discos. They'd often come home in the company of two beautiful women. Thinking back now, Hutch could recall so many nights with Starsky, their conversations, the way he'd been dressed, the way he'd looked dancing, yet he could not bring to mind the faces of any of the girls they had dated in those days. Women passed into and out of our lives, never making any difference, any impression. But you and I are constant. He sighed, knowing the truth in the concept. There had been women they'd loved, but even Terry and Gillian had faded into the inconsequential distance now. Hutch knew there was no one he'd rather be spending an evening with than the man sitting beside him.

"Starsk," he said abruptly, "why don't you get up and dance?"

"Me?" Starsky looked surprised. "Nah. I don't go in for that stuff anymore."

"You were always a great dancer, as I remember," Sally spoke up.

Starsky glanced away, peering down at the empty glass sitting before him. "That was years ago." He shrugged, as if searching for an acceptable excuse. "I'm a Lieutenant now."

"Oh yeah, you've gotta watch that image," Sally sniffed. She pointed across the room. "I see Captain Dobey doesn't worry about such things."

Taking in the sight of Dobey and Edith dancing, a smile briefly appeared on Starsky's face. Then his expression darkened again. "I don't know..."

"Go on," Hutch urged him. "I can't dance now... but I'd like to see you out there." He smiled, feeling shy for some reason. "I always liked to watch you dance."

For just a heartbeat, Starsky's eyes locked with Hutch's. His gaze was tender, gentle with surprise. The grin trying to break free did so, broadening when Hutch answered with one of his own.

'Okay," he said finally, quietly, his tone seeming at variance with the blazing smile on his face. "Sally?"

"I thought you'd never ask." Her voice seemed to puncture the spell that had been woven between the two friends.

Starsky glanced over at her, looking as if he'd nearly forgotten her presence. "Let's go." He grinned once more at Hutch, then led the woman out on the dance floor.

Hutch sat back in his seat, content to watch.

********

Starsky almost felt awkward out there, taking a few moments to just feel the beat of the music, let it start to pound in time with his blood. Though once dancing had seemed almost as necessary an activity as breathing, he couldn't now remember the last time he had participated. Sure haven t felt like it. Haven't felt like socializing much at all in the last couple of years. Now, moving more confidently to the brisk beat, he realized he hadn't even missed the active social life they'd once led.

Sally was smiling at him, enjoying herself, getting into the dance. Her body was slender, wrapped with toned muscle, in as good condition as anyone who worked the streets had to be. Starsky watched her move, timing his actions to her own, his hips flexing, gyrating. Dancing with an agile partner had always brought out the exhibitionist in him. His body was easily seduced to outdo itself, and now he let himself go, retaining the thought that Hutch was watching him. This is for you, babe, he thought, tremors of warmth chasing down his back. Wish we could be out here dancing together.

They'd never actually been partners on the dance floor, of course, though they'd occasionally fooled around. Starsky recalled one evening when Hutch had relaxed enough to show that he really could dance better than he usually let on, when the step known as 'the bump' had been in. They'd abandoned their female partners, and took to the middle of the disco floor, rocking through a Donna Summer record, hips meeting on every downbeat.

The first song ended and a new record began. This was a slow tune, and Sally was coming toward him, her arms outstretched, expecting to be taken hold of by her dance partner. Starsky couldn't back out now, but he felt every muscle tense as she neared him, nearly flinching when her hands came in contact with his shoulder and hand. She drew herself close to him, trying to fit her body to his. Starsky pulled back as much as was polite, not wanting to insult her, but definitely uncomfortable with being in close contact.

"I remember you had some pretty smooth moves on the slow tunes, too," she said in a silky voice.

Starsky couldn't answer. He didn't know how to react to this kind of contact anymore. Actually, he hadn't been this close to another person in years. Except... except for Hutch... These aren't the hands I want touching me...

"Hey," Sally whispered cautiously, "I don't bite, you know."

Starsky cleared his throat. "Isn't this known as fraternization?"

"I won't report you if you don't report me."

This is ridiculous, he told himself firmly, feeling foolish. He made an effort to loosen up again before she thought he was really weird. "Sorry. Guess I'm a little out of practice."

"You're doing fine."

********

Hutch watched the dancers move together as the music slowed. Sally was close to Starsky now, inside the circle of his arms and for some reason, the sight bothered Hutch. Am I jealous of her for coming along tonight? Why? Who'd I expect him to dance with?

Starsky looked like he was having a good time. Hutch wondered if he liked Sally, if he had taken her out on a date yet.

He shook his head, rubbing his eyes, suddenly feeling confused, tired. His gaze on the dance floor slowly unfocused and he flashed on a vision he couldn't explain. He and Starsky, locked together in a fast embrace, feeling as though everything were suddenly right with the world. Memory or imagination...? He wasn't sure which.

Did that ever happen? He couldn't tell. So many times, these last few weeks, he'd think himself on the verge of a memory, only to realize his thoughts were born of his dreams, part of the endless dark that had held him prisoner so long. Some of the images were frightening. Others, like this one, were so sweet he nearly wept, wanting to touch them and know that they were real.

We held each other many times. Of that he was sure. When you or I were hurting, holding close sometimes was the only way to fight the pain. But did we ever... cling together, draw tight as if to force the world and all its precepts away?

I can't ask you, can I? It's too... close... too easy to misunderstand. I've got to figure it out by myself.

He rubbed at his eyes again, focusing once again on Starsky and Sally dancing.

 

You look good together. Maybe I'm the one who's interfering. Maybe if I wasn't still so sick, there'd be no need for Starsk to spend all his evenings at the Rehab Center with me... The thought hurt, but Hutch couldn't force it out of his mind.

********

Starsky and Hutch stayed until the reception was declared officially over. Hutch was tired, but he could see that Starsky was having a good time, and didn't want to make him leave any sooner than necessary. As the merry-makers began to leave, offering last congratulations to Captain Dobey, Hutch felt strange, not quite a part of the world moving on around him. They've all gone on, while I've been standing still. Will I ever be able to catch up?

He knew he wanted to try. One thing this evening had proved to him was that he did want very much to get back into the world. It was good to be away from the hospital regimen. It was good to laugh and smile and joke around, even good to learn about the changes that had taken place while he'd been in the coma. I'm alive, and it feels so good. I'm really lucky just to be alive.

The party was breaking up, and Sally and Starsky helped Hutch make his way out of the ballroom and out to the parking lot. He had to hang onto the handles of his walker tightly, countering the fatigue stealing over him, but he didn't want to miss any of the sights and sounds of the city by night as they emerged from the hotel. The air was close, still smog-filtered, cars ground past, horns blaring occasional insults from one driver to another. Lots of people passed by, even this time of evening, all with somewhere to go, something to do. A sense of nostalgia swept over Hutch. Years ago, he and Starsky were sometimes just getting ready to go out at this time of night. Now, it was time for them each to go home. Separately. Me back to the Rehab Center, him to his apartment.

An attendant drove the black Camaro up to where they were waiting. Hutch was again struck with surprise to see Starsky getting behind the wheel of another car. So many changes... maybe he doesn't even live in the same apartment I've been picturing him in all this time... I'll have to ask sometime...

The passenger door was opened for him and he sagged onto the front bucket seat. Starsky bent to help him lift his legs into the car, then he and Sally again stowed the walker and she climbed in the back. When Starsky got in on the driver's side, he noticed that Hutch was watching him intently.

"You okay?" he asked quietly.

"Sure," Hutch answered. "Thanks for tonight."

"Anytime, partner."

"You can just drop me at Metro," Sally spoke from the back seat. "I left my car in the parking lot, remember."

"Oh, yeah."

Hutch was surprised to hear that. He'd thought Starsky would take Sally home after he'd been dropped off at the hospital. It was only a short ride to the station from the hotel, and soon Sally was on her way. She'd waved jauntily at Hutch and Starsky as she unlocked the door to her Mustang. Hutch felt an incredible lightness overcome him at her leaving.

He looked over at Starsky just as his friend reached to switch on the radio.

"Just an oldies station this time, hmm?" Starsky asked softly.

"Okay." Hutch leaned back in the seat, content, watching the city pass by in the car window.

As they pulled out onto the freeway, the strains of acoustic guitar and intertwining harmony spread soothingly through the car. Simon and Garfunkle, Hutch recognized. "Old Friends."

Old friends...
Sat on their park bench like bookends,
A newspaper blown through the grass
Falls on the round toes
Of the high shoes
Of the old friends...

"Ummm," Starsky sighed. "I used to love this song." He seemed to relax fully, getting comfortable, stretching to drape his arm around the back of Hutch's seat, encompassing his shoulders.

The familiar melody, the humming of road sounds outside the car, the sense of safety inside, knit them closer. Hutch turned to watch Starsky's profile as he drove.

Long ago it must be,
I have a photograph,
Preserve your memories,
They're all that's left you...

The song died away, slipping into the night and leaving them alone. Starsky sighed.

"Reminds me of you and me, partner," he said dreamily. "How terribly strange to be seventy -- huh? Can you imagine?"

Hutch squeezed his eyes shut, tears threatening again. Photographs, memories... that's all we have left. Maybe all we'll ever have. He knew Starsky was thinking of good times, adventures still to be. Yet Hutch was filled with the poignant knowledge that perhaps they would never regain what they had once had together. Is that what we'll become, two old men with dreams of long ago and far away, nothing to look forward to...? He rubbed his aching eyes, letting his head drop back against the seat cushion. Starsky's fingers slid lightly through his hair, but the touch brought a kind of ache, something unfulfilled trembling just out of Hutch's reach. Unhappy, confused, he drifted into sleep.

"Come on, sleepyhead. We're here." Soft voice, soft touch at his shoulder. Hutch didn't really wake, he just sat up groggily.

The car door was open, Starsky bending down to help him out. The walker sat nearby, and Hutch wished they'd brought the wheelchair instead. Easier to hide sitting in that thing... walking on my own hurts too much...

"You can make it. It's not too far." With Starsky holding his waist, helping him to move the metal walker, they finally arrived at Hutch's room.

He pulled off his clothes and let Starsky fold and drape them over the chair while he crawled exhausted into his bed. The other man was quiet, not speaking as he moved about the room, and Hutch was grateful for the silence.

Starsky moved close to him again at last, slender fingers adjusting the covers over him, lingering as they passed over one bare shoulder. He turned to dim the light, then bent close, searching Hutch's face.

"Pretty tired, huh?" The words were an intimate whisper.

Hutch nodded. "Thanks... again."

"Glad to have you." The intense eyes closed a moment, then reopened, looking brighter. "You don't know how much..."

Hutch looked up into the sapphire eyes, wishing with all his heart that he could read them as well as he used to. It's like we've forgotten who we are, what we are together. Sometimes, it seemed like they were as close as they'd always been, that each one understood the other. More often, however, Hutch felt a strange distance between them. No, not distance... something waiting... watching... He gave up trying to analyze the empty feeling he'd often encountered. Now, as usual, it slipped away, kept him unable to confront it. Yet he felt he should, that he needed to find his way through it. That it held the truth.

He was still looking into Starsky's eyes. The gaze warmed as he watched it, Starsky leaning closer as the seconds passed. There was utter silence in the room. Hutch saw a faint expectancy on Starsky's face; it looked very similar to the empty watching feeling he'd just been thinking about. He was bewildered, but it felt good to have his friend this close, this protective. Tucking me in. Do I get a goodnight kiss? The thought curved his lips in a tiny smile. Hutch drifted to sleep thinking of his partner's mouth touching his own.

********

Starsky straightened after he was certain Hutch was asleep. The night had been a good one, though there had been some painful moments. I love you, he thought at the sleeper. Don't you see how much? Just now, he'd felt so close, needed him so much. He'd nearly given into temptation and kissed the full lips that seemed waiting for his touch. But I couldn't. You wouldn't... understand, would you? All you remember is the friendship. I'd know if you remembered the love; I wouldn't feel this... this distance. Ah, Hutch... when will you really come back to me?