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Distant Shores

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CHAPTER IV

 

He lurched awake, rolling over in the narrow bed, opening his eyes wide to look around and make sure of his real surroundings. Noting he was surrounded by the familiar shapes of his hospital room, Hutch sighed in relief. He peered toward the window, but could see only pre-dawn grey skies. Even without knowing how to read the clock at his bedside, he knew it was too early to be awake.

Yet he was too disturbed to go back to sleep. The images that had broken his rest had been some of the most vivid since his return to the waking world; now he lay in silence and deliberately tried to recall them, to give them definition and understanding.

They were trying to kill me. Even here, where he knew he was safe, those hours of danger stayed with him. He had been in positions where his life was at risk before, yet even in the midst of those situations, there had been some action he could take, some hope remained. Not this time. They carried me half a world away from any sort of help. I was outnumbered. They got my gun... He tried to remember just how he'd become their prisoner, but the exact sequence of events had flown from his memory. What remained was what had been done to him. They used a needle...

The thought stripped reality away, and he imagined again the dripping hypodermic, its thin metallic blade coming for his exposed arm...

Please... no! I want to live... I want... Starsky!

Whether he had screamed aloud in that moment, or only imagined he had, Hutch would never know. He did feel the bite of the steel point, the cold shooting spark of death arcing into his bloodstream.

He fell then into an endless dark abyss, lost, alone and comfortless. Only one thought remained. Starsky. How he loved him...

Hutch's lids drifted shut and another part of his dream replayed as silent fantasy. He lay in another bed, arms wrapped around his friend, bodies pressed close as if to bind them soul to soul. He could feel... so much. His body echoed with the aftermath of sensation, tingled with the glory of touch, of satisfaction. He dreamed he could feel the press of lips warm, masculine and hungry, against his own. His skin, sensitized and aroused, slid luxuriously along the naked flesh of another. His arms tightened, reaching out for the fantasy that seemed so real...

Hutch opened his eyes again, abruptly. Why'd I dream those things? Why does it seem so real, so much like it really happened? Did Starsky and I...? For a moment, he wanted the answer to be yes. Yet he feared looking too closely -- the idea scared him for reasons he could not define. Although he wanted to examine the intimate, sweet half-memories, he felt inadequate -- either to fully understand them or to ever recreate them again.

He was still sleepy, however, and was content to lie in the warm bed, accepting the remembered sensations and letting them lull him back into dreams.

When he next awoke, it was to full daylight outside his window. Both the terror and the love had faded into recollection, and he was safe from both. The sun came slanting through the venetian blinds, and Hutch sat up, feeling free and alive, eager to face the world he'd sampled the day before at Dobey's reception.

I'm alive! They didn't kill me. I'm here. And the whole rest of my life is ahead of me. He found he couldn't wait to get started on his regimen, the therapy to regain his strength and faculties. He sat up, rubbing the tangle of hair back from his forehead, looking impatiently ahead to whatever the new day would bring.

********

For the next two months, Hutch maintained a delicate balance between hope and defeat. Mornings found him eager to begin the day's therapy. Disappointments and frustrations came as due course to bring his spirits down. Yet he continued to fight back the best he could. He was lucky to be alive, and he knew it. Even though he'd lost two years, he'd survived. How many times he chanted those words before falling asleep, he didn't know. For some reason, they eased his aching muscles and helped him combat his occasional depression. He would never regain what he had lost, but he was alive.

The hard work had begun, and Hutch could see that it was going to be a long time before it was finished...

********

December, 1981

It was a red-letter day. Hutch was going home. Finally, he thought, still marveling that the day had at last arrived. There had been times when a life outside hospital walls had seemed like a distant dream to him. Life outside, on his own, was part of his past, but it didn't seem as though it could be a part of his future as well. I've been living in limbo, marking time, just waiting... Now, Hutch felt as though his life were beginning again.

He got up to look out the window for perhaps the fiftieth time in the last hour. He was anxious to see Starsky's car coming up the driveway, eager to gather his possessions and be on his way.

It was not, however, the last he would be seeing of the hospital. Arrangements had been made for him to continue therapy on an outpatient basis. He would return daily for physical, speech and occupational therapy, as well as his twice-weekly appointments with the psychiatrist.

At last, he saw the black Camaro making the turn into the Rehab Center parking lot. Hutch watched as it slid into a space and his friend climbed out. Starsky stood for a moment, peering up at the hospital facade, a hand shading his eyes from the brilliant sun. Catching sight of Hutch at the window, he waved, flashing a huge grin. Excited, Hutch waved back.

In moments, Starsky appeared at the door to Hutch's room.

"All ready, partner?" he asked, still smiling.

"Been ready since breakfast," Hutch told him, teasing. "What kept you?"

Starsky looked him over, frank admiration in his gaze. "If you knew how you sound, talking like that..."

"Do I sound like my old self?" Hutch asked, feeling suddenly shy.

"Yeah -- vain as ever," Starsky shot back.

Hutch didn't have an answer to that, but he sensed it wasn't required.

Just then, a nurse arrived with a wheelchair for Hutch to make his exit in.

"I don't need this," he told her rather plaintively.

"I know. But that's hospital regulations. You understand," the woman smiled.

"Yeah, Hutch," Starsky reminded, "take it easy while you can. I'm not gonna keep bein' soft on ya now that you're officially released from this joint."

Laughing, looking forward to his future, Hutch climbed into the chair.

********

In fifteen minutes they were on the freeway. Starsky adjusted his rear-view mirror, eyes glancing swiftly in Hutch's direction.

"You sure you want to stay at Venice Place? I really wouldn't mind having you at my apartment."

"I know. But I want to go home." It seemed so obvious to Hutch. They had discussed the arrangements several times, and he had remained adamant on that point. He wanted to be in his own home. Starsky would come over and help him as often as he could, but Hutch had also pointed out that he felt he was being a burden to Starsky. They had asked the social worker, Mrs. Kelly, for suggestions, and with her help had found a man who would stay at the apartment at night in case Hutch needed anything. Christopher would also drive Hutch to the hospital in the mornings, and pick him up on the days when Starsky's work kept him beyond the hour when Hutch was ready to go home. Christopher was young, friendly, and had training as an LPN, so Starsky had agreed that having him around would be good. Hutch remembered, however, that Starsky hadn't been totally enthusiastic at the thought of someone else practically living with Hutch.

"You've been so busy with me all this time," Hutch had tried to explain. "You've got to take some time for yourself, Starsk." He had actually started worrying about his friend. Most evenings, Starsky had stopped by the Rehab Center for at least an hour, usually longer. The only days he missed were those occasions when he was kept working late on a case. Most of the time, he seemed over-tired and withdrawn to Hutch. He'd often asked his partner to discuss the cases he was involved in, but Starsky hadn't shared much with him. "Just talk," Hutch had urged repeatedly, despite the fact that he wasn't always able to follow the entire conversation. "I like to listen." But too often, Starsky had kept his work to himself, claiming he was so tired and the work so dull that there was no pointing in boring Hutch with the events of his day.

Maybe now that I'm home, he'll realize that I'm able to participate in his life again, Hutch hoped. He turned to watch his friend's profile as he drove. We're together every day -- why do I feel like I miss you so much?

There were faint lines under the cerulean eyes, and grim marks engraved at the corners of the sensitive mouth. He's been through a lot these last two years, Hutch reminded himself. Maybe both of us just need to develop some patience, to take the time to get back to normal again. Starsky had been a constant, supportive presence for him for so many months; Hutch wanted to be there for his friend, too. He wasn't sure what Starsky needed, but he was still searching for the answer, and a way to provide it for his friend.

At last they pulled into a parking place on Ocean Avenue, and Hutch looked up at the salmon pink facade of Venice Place. There was a sharp tug, a burning ache, in his heart as he stared at the building. Home... I've come home at last...

They climbed the steps, Hutch cursing his slowness every step of the way. Finally, Starsky unlocked the door and swung the portal wide.

Hutch just stood in the doorway and stared, feeling a pulse race at his temple, and a giddiness try to overtake his head. It seemed unreal, unbelievable. Here was his home, just the way he remembered it. It looked... perfect. Hutch turned to Starsky, reaching for him with both hands.

"Starsk... it's beautiful! How did you manage to keep it like this?"

Starsky shrugged, his cheeks coloring faintly. "Why should I have changed anything? I knew you'd be coming back some day."

Hutch squeezed his friend's shoulders, then turned and stepped into the room. He was overcome with emotion, moving slowly, savoring the feel, the ambiance of the rooms he loved. The furniture was still arranged the way he'd left it, the wood glossed to perfection without a speck of dust. "You found me a new housekeeper," he said in a husky voice, fingers running over the polished oak of his dining table. The profusion of plants still shaded the windows, the green hues welcoming him. In awe, Hutch moved through the rooms, finding his way to the porch. There, the feeling of homecoming was stronger than ever, and he sank down for a little while on the friendly bench, sighing in the slanting sun.

Starsky moved out to sit beside him. "It looks okay to you?" There was a note in the voice that told Hutch he needed to be reassured.

"Sure. I... can't believe it. Feels like I've only been away a few days." His gaze turned to include the interior of the apartment. "Starsky... I don't know how to thank you."

A firm, yet somewhat cautious hand reached out and grasped his own. Long, slender fingers intertwined with his for the barest of instants. Then, Starsky released his hand, standing up abruptly.

"Guess I'd better go bring up your luggage, huh?"

Before Hutch could answer, his friend was on his way down the apartment stairs.

He got up off the bench, intending to continue his tour of the rooms, but Hutch was first drawn to the living room window. Starsky was down there, busily unloading the boxes and suitcases Hutch had accumulated in the hospital. What's wrong, babe? Hutch wanted to ask him. Why can't you let up for a little while? What's pushing you to keep trying so hard? Sighing, he turned away, unaccountably uncomfortable by the image Starsky presented. Hutch drifted into his bedroom.

The brass bed gleamed, too, and it was obvious that this possession had also been well cared for in his absence. How much of the work had Starsky himself done, Hutch wondered. He had a feeling that, if he asked, his friend wouldn't answer him.

He sat on the bed, running his fingers over the old-fashioned chenille spread that had belonged to his grandmother. The clock on the bedside stand was ticking away, sounding loud to Hutch in the silent room. He smiled; Starsky had thought of everything.

He got up again and moved to his dresser, pulling out one of the drawers. Clothes he remembered wearing were folded neatly away, but he wasn't sure how many of them were still useable. Styles had certainly changed in the interim, and he knew he still had not gained back much of the weight he'd been carrying when he'd been whisked out of L.A. He opened an oak box on the dresser, finding his jewelry neatly arranged. His fingers slid over his gold cufflinks, seldom worn since Van had given them to him one Christmas long ago, various rings and old tie tacks, and settled on the little necklace he'd worn constantly for a while. The white star and half moon decorating the chain made him feel definitely nostalgic. Hutch picked up the piece and slipped it over his head. The celestial shapes settled at the base of his throat and Hutch looked into the mirror to see the effect. What he viewed was not the man he expected to find staring back at him. Here, in the home he remembered so well, he'd felt like that other Hutch, the one who lived here and went to work on the streets of L.A. every day. Instead, the mirror didn't lie. He was thin, still almost gaunt-looking, eyes full of emotion and pain. He shied away from his somewhat desperate appearance. Is this what Starsky sees when he looks at me? No wonder he acts kinda spooked sometimes...

"I'm back," Starsky called from the doorway. Hutch hurried over to help him with the load of luggage he was putting down on the floor. When Starsky stood up, he immediately noticed the necklace Hutch had donned. His eyes flicked up to his friend's face, then back down again. "That looks nice," he offered faintly before carrying one of the suitcases into the bedroom.

They unpacked Hutch's things, incorporating them into the dresser drawers and closet, making room for the new clothes that fit him, sliding aside the older things that were obviously too large now.

"You can get rid of this stuff if you want," Starsky shrugged. "I wasn't sure what you'd decide."

"I guess some of it I may as well keep," Hutch mused. "Some of the jeans are all right, I guess." He didn't really feel like thinking about such practical matters at the moment; he was busy going through his desk drawers in the living room. "Starsk?" he asked, looking up from a nearly empty drawer, "where's my gun?" He shut the one drawer and pulled out the next, finding it stuffed with papers -- old junk mail from the look of them. "I was sure my gun case would be here..."

Starsky moved out to stand beside him. "Don't you remember? I told you your gun was found in an airport locker."

"I know. But what did you do with it? I sort of expected it'd be here in the lock box. I mean..." he hesitated at the odd look on Starsky's face, "everything else is pretty much where I always left it."

"Yeah, I know." Starsky rubbed a hand through his already tousled hair. "The gun's over at my place, in the lock box. I... didn't feel right about leaving it here with the place unattended and all." A faraway look had come into the man's eyes, one Hutch could not interpret.

"Have you... used it?" Hutch knew the question sounded awkward; he didn't mean to seem like he was prying.

"No." Starsky shook his head. "I... just felt better having it at my place. It's in perfect condition -- been cleaned regularly..." The words faded.

Hutch stood up, clasping Starsky's wrist. "Okay. Sounds like you took care of just about everything." He essayed a smile, hoping to bring the light back into Starsky's eyes. "I really do appreciate all you've done, Starsk."

The deep-set eyes regarded him levelly for a moment, their look full of affection and yet absent, sad somehow, at the same time. "I was glad to do it." The words were barely a whisper.

Hutch didn't know what to do. A part of him felt like drawing Starsky into a fierce hug, wrapping him up close and comfortable the way they used to when both of them were feeling sappy. Yet he felt that would be somehow an invasion of Starsky's space. He seems so closed off, remote... if I reached out, would he shy away, or would he be glad I tried to hold him? Before he could puzzle through the feelings further, though, Starsky changed the subject.

"Hey, how' bout a meal down at Huggy's place? He's got a great new restaurant -- better than The Pits ever was. You'll love it, lots of pita sandwiches..."

"Okay." Whatever Starsky wanted sounded fine to Hutch.

"When's that guy coming over?"

"Christopher? He doesn't start until tomorrow morning."

Starsky looked surprised. "Not 'til then?" He seemed as though he wanted to say something else, but was seeking a way to phrase it.

"Don't you think I can handle a night by myself?" The concern of his partner was nice, but a part of Hutch longed for some feeling of independence.

"No, it's..." Frustration evident in Starsky's eyes, he let the words trail off.

I know, Hutch wanted to tell him. I understand. And I guess I don't really want to be alone, either. Memories of other homecomings rushed back at him; Starsky hadn't let him out of his sight for a week after Hutch had recovered from the mystery plague that had swept through the city. What'd he say -- 'gonna take you home and tuck you in...' "If you don't mind that crummy couch," he spoke up, gesturing in its direction, "you're welcome to camp out. Guess I'm not ready for the big leagues quite yet, anyway."

Starsky laughed, obviously tickled at the reminiscence. "You bastard," he said affectionately. "Okay. Let's go get some lunch. I'm starved."

********

The day seemed a very long one to Hutch, who was thoroughly tired by the time evening drew near. He sat on the couch with Starsky, watching the ten o'clock news, already dozing and thinking of his comfortable bed. When his friend nudged him, he readily agreed to call it a night.

"I'll get you some covers," he offered as he levered himself up off the sofa.

"I know where everything is," Starsky chided gently. "You don't have to treat me like a guest, you know, especially not your first night home. Go on, brush your teeth or whatever. I'll make up the couch."

Hutch conceded that Starsky could fend for himself and headed for the bathroom.

It felt good to slide on an old, familiar pair of pajama bottoms he located in a dresser drawer, even if they were a little too large. Hutch tied the drawstring of the faded blue garment, preferring the thin cotton to the newer, fancier pajamas he'd worn in the hospital. A guy always has to look presentable around those nurses, Starsky had told him once. Now he was home, and comfort took precedence over both modesty and style.

He could hear Starsky moving about in the other room. The sofa pillows tumbled to the floor so he'd have enough room on the couch to sleep, the covers he'd gotten from the linen closet rustled as he shook the folds out of them. His sneakers clunked to the floor and keys rattled in his jeans as they were tossed over the back of one of the oak chairs. As Hutch moved to turn down his own covers, Starsky called to him.

"You all set in there?"

"Yeah," he answered, looking over his shoulder.

"Aren't there some pills you need to take or something?"

"Not at night. In the morning," Hutch reminded. "I'm fine." You could come over here, you know, you don 't have to shout from the living room...

"Well, goodnight then." Starsky said it without moving nearer.

Hutch climbed under his own covers. "Goodnight."

"Okay if I turn out this light?" Starsky indicated the desk lamp.

"Sure. There's enough light from the street lamps."

"Okay." He switched off the last remaining light and the apartment settled into quiet.

Hutch lay awake for a long time after he heard Starsky lay down on the couch. Illumination from the streetlights warmed the rooms, welcoming him. He was grateful to find so many things the way he remembered. Just wish you didn't feel so awkward with me, Starsk...

Sighing, he plumped the feather pillow under his head, enjoying its comfort and the smooth caress of percale sheets under and over him. Lots better than those hard lumps the hospital calls pillows, and those scratchy muslin sheets... The night reached out for him, and he sensed that here, in his own home at last, there would be few dreams to disturb him. Slowly, he drifted into a relaxing sleep.

Much later, something awakened him. He didn't stir, just lay quietly, silently investigating the night surrounding him. It hadn't been a noise or movement that had disturbed him. Then what? He opened his eyes just a slit, to seek the source of the change.

All was dark. His eyes slowly adjusted, finding a silhouette of deeper darkness in the depths of the night-shrouded apartment. Starsky. He stood near the foot of the bed, a silent sentinel wearing only pale briefs, arms clasped across his middle as if the night air was chilly, or something pained him. Hutch almost whispered his name, but didn't wish to disturb the silence, sensing Starsky needed it, as much as he needed to stand guard over him this way. I'm okay. I'm here... The words couldn't be said however, didn't really need to be. Starsky's presence was a comfort, no matter how awkward his bearing might have been. Hutch kept quiet, settling back to sleep after long moments of cherishing the picture of his friend so near, yet still so far away.

********

Starsky stood for a moment, watching the lone figure on the beach. Hutch was seated on the sand, blond hair flying in the stiff ocean breeze. Even this late in December, the wind was warm, the sun bright. Starsky was glad the weather seemed to be holding, that the mountain snows were delayed enough to keep the coastal weather clear. Somehow, even a California winter seemed like it would be too much to bear right now. He preferred seeing Hutch under a sunny sky that would give him a chance to grow strong and tanned once more.

As he watched, Hutch got slowly to his feet. He was still a little unsteady due to the weakness that persisted on his right side. The tall figure looked slender in its black running pants and sweatshirt, but was more muscular now than the unnaturally gaunt body that had come home from Australia. Added to his continued physical therapy had been daily walks along the beach. He needs a haircut, Starsky thought, watching the wind tangle the gilded strands. There was never enough time, it seemed, for him to take Hutch to get one, or to go out with him much at all, lately. At work, he was bogged down on a couple of major cases, both coming to a head at the same time. I guess I should ask Christopher to take him... Somehow, Starsky knew he wouldn't take that option, however. Christopher was a great help to Hutch, but Starsky didn't like him doing everything for his friend. It made Starsky feel as though his own help wasn't needed. Besides, he told himself, he looks better with his hair long, even if most men are wearing it a bit shorter these days. Reminds me of... other times...

Hutch turned, shading his eyes to search for Starsky. When he caught sight of him he waved, beckoning his friend to join him. Starsky headed out toward the water's edge.

"How's it goin' today?" he asked as he neared him.

"Not bad. I'm a bit tired," Hutch admitted, squinting into the sun.

Starsky took hold of his arm. "You know, you might be pushing yourself too much. You're not in training for the Olympics, remember."

"I have to," Hutch told him, "if I'm ever going to get back in shape." He looked down at himself, hands running over his hips, outlining the prominent bone structure. "I can't stand myself looking like some ninety-pound weakling."

"You never weighed ninety pounds," Starsky chided. "I oughta know; I picked you up enough times."

The teasing didn't seem to work. "Come on," Hutch said, "let's walk." He started off and Starsky had no choice but to follow him.

The firm sand held their footprints easily. Starsky glanced back, finding solace in the sight of the lingering images of the two of them moving side by side.

Hutch stumbled, bringing his attention back to the present. Starsky caught him before he could topple, wrapping one arm around the slim waist, grasping the arm closest to him to hold his friend steady.

"I'm okay." Hutch's protest was automatic.

"Sure. Where's that cane they gave you, anyway?"

"I left it upstairs. It sinks into the sand. Besides, I can't keep relying on a cane like an old man, Starsky." The voice was petulant.

"You can if it's the only way you have of getting around without falling down every three steps." It was hard remaining objective, understanding Hutch's need to seek independence. Starsky took a deep breath. "You gotta be logical, Hutch. You need it. When that leg gets tired, you know it won't hold you up. There's nothing to be ashamed of in using something that helps."

Hutch sighed, eyes staring out across the dashing waves. "I've got the brace on," he said finally, still not looking at Starsky.

The brace was something Starsky knew he hated. It was a light, plastic contraption, not nearly as unsightly as the braces kids crippled by polio or other infirmities years ago were seen using. Under his clothing, it made a barely visible outline, yet Hutch detested wearing it. It pinched, he often said, making it more difficult instead of easier to walk. Just excuses, Starsky knew. His partner didn't like having to admit any kind of weakness now that he was out of the hospital.

"The doctor said I might always need it," the troubled voice confessed.

Starsky didn't know how to comfort him. "Well, if you do, you do. It's no reflection on you, Hutch. You can still be a strong man, even if you have to wear a brace on your leg." He sighed, blurting the first thing that came to mind when Hutch didn't respond. "I have scars, you know. Can't do anything about them, either."

Hutch swung around to look at him, his eyes wide in anxious concern. "You do? From when you were shot back before I was hurt? I... guess I've never seen them." A hand reached out for his shoulder, the big eyes full of innocent curiosity. "How bad are they?"

The scrutiny made Starsky distinctly uncomfortable. He shrugged, not wanting the attention put back on himself. It was Hutch they were supposed to be talking about. "They're not that obvious anymore. I've kinda gotten used to them. They're just another part of me, like that brace would be a part of you if you stopped worrying about it."

"I'm sorry." The soft-voiced apology was impulsive, and Starsky didn't know if Hutch was speaking about his own behavior or the scars. The intent gaze seemed to look directly into his soul, asking questions. For a moment, Starsky couldn't speak, so sure he was that Hutch was about to take him into his arms. A part of him needed desperately to be held and comforted by this man he loved so much. Yet another side of him panicked at the thought. Hutch might want a friend's embrace; Starsky needed something deeper. But on an intuitive level, Starsky knew he didn't know how to express his own feelings anymore, either.

After a long moment, Hutch reached with his hand, plucking at a stray curl that had blown into Starsky's eyes. Gentle fingers smoothed the strand back, then slid down the side of his face. Starsky held perfectly still, fighting the impulse to tremble under the touch. Then Hutch broke the look, glancing away again, back toward the waves.

Why didn't I reach out for you? Starsky asked himself, bitter now that he had let the opportunity slip through his fingers. I'm a fool; too much in love with him to know what I'm doing, too scared to let him know how much...

"Can we... walk some more?" Hutch asked, without turning to look at him.

"Sure," Starsky answered in a rough, remorseful voice. "It's okay, Hutch. You're doin' better all the time." Trite or not, the litany came automatically.

"Maybe... the doctor's wrong. Maybe my leg will finally get stronger." Hutch took one and then another cautious step, testing his strength.

"Maybe it will."

"It's almost Christmas, isn't it?" Hutch asked suddenly, perking up.

"Uh-huh. What's that got to do with it?"

"The old year is ending. A new one is coming along. I want to... start over, too."

"Start over?"

"Yeah. I can't get back the past, can I? All that time I lost... I want to move forward."

"I know. You are." Starsky took Hutch's elbow, still concerned that he might falter again. All that time we lost... it looks like there's a lot that won't be recovered from those days. I think I lost a part of myself back then, too. Heart aching, he got a better grip on his friend, determined to let neither of them dwell on the problems that lay ahead. Only the possibilities were important; Starsky vowed he'd never lose sight of them, for Hutch as well as for himself.

********

"I'll be home for Christmas, you can count on me..." Starsky heard the music as he climbed the steps to Venice Place. Reaching the landing, he stood outside Hutch's door for a moment, listening, imagining. It felt like everything the song talked about was finally coming true.

He tapped on the door, calling out "Ho, ho, ho!" When the door was pulled open, he fully expected to see Hutch. Instead, it was Christopher who greeted him.

"Uh, hi." The chill in his voice was something he couldn't hide. "Didn't expect to see you here today," he went on, passing the nurse and going into the living room.

"Hutch asked me to stay for a while." There was not a single note of defensiveness in the young man's tone. "He wants to go to the Rehab Center later. They're having a Christmas party, you know."

"I know." Starsky bent to place his packages on the table. He glanced around the room. It was regally trimmed for the season. He'd taken Hutch shopping for the tree himself and together they had decorated it. Every surface glittered from the light of candles, and the air was filled with the scents of bayberry and pine and cinnamon. Hutch had been waiting for Christmas for a long time.

"Would you like some eggnog?" Christopher, acting as host, offered him a mug of frothy punch.

"Sure. Why not?" Starsky took a sip; it was laced with just a touch of whiskey. "Where's Hutch?" he asked when his friend still did not appear.

"He's getting dressed, I think." Christopher nodded toward the bathroom door. "He couldn't decide what he wanted to wear."

Starsky joined the caretaker in a smile. Lately, it seemed that Hutch took a long time choosing his clothes and putting them on. He was as fastidious as he used to be, but less efficient. Now, he did everything with a kind of cautious deliberation, as if he didn't wish to make any errors that couldn't be corrected.

Just at that moment, the bathroom door opened, and Hutch stepped out. Starsky was caught by surprise. He found himself struggling to catch his breath. Hutch looked -- Starsky blinked, the image remained -- beautiful.

The tall blond had selected a dark green v-neck sweater and wore it without a shirt underneath. Its bulk camouflaged the thinness of his frame, but clung to his shoulders, showing off their breadth. The deep tones of the sweater against smooth, tawny skin did weird things to Starsky's blood pressure. The gold hair, catching light from the candles and tree bulbs, looked like spun satin. Starsky wondered how long he was going to be able to keep from running his fingers through it.

"Merry Christmas, Starsk." Hutch's voice drew Starsky back from his reverie.

"Merry Christmas, partner," he managed. That was all he could say for the moment.

"Do I... look funny or something?"

Starsky grinned. "Not a bit. Get your skinny carcass over here -- the day's half over already!"

Laughing, Hutch complied. He knelt beside the tree, indicating the small pile of presents there. "Do you want to unwrap things now, or wait until the party at the Rehab Center is over?"

Starsky sat on the couch and shook his head. "It's up to you. This is your holiday, buddy."

"I wished you Happy Hanukkah," Hutch said defensively. He turned, picking up the packages Starsky had placed on the coffee table. Each one was gently shaken before being placed under the tree. "Maybe I'll open just one," he decided, selecting one of them. Starsky watched, enjoying his friend's enthusiasm. The paper was torn off, and a bottle of English Leather Timberline was revealed. "Thanks!" Hutch was already opening it and sniffing at the fragrance. He put some of the cologne on. "It smells good."

For a moment, he and Starsky sat looking at each other, Starsky wondering if Hutch could feel the emotion that seemed to throb in the air. Who woulda thought we'd ever feel this much joy again?

Christopher spoke quietly. "Breakfast is going to get cold if we don't start eating soon." Though his presence was a bit intrusive on the holiday, Starsky didn't really mind. The guy was kind, practical -- good for Hutch. And at the moment, he seemed to realize that Starsky and Hutch were each other's family and he was the outsider.

"Right." Hutch looked up as if he just remembered the breakfast. "I made most of it myself."

Starsky groaned as he got up and headed for the table. "Christopher, not again?"

"I'm afraid so," the nurse shook his head, grinning. "He's been enjoying the cooking at the center they do as therapy."

"I know. I know." Starsky took his seat at the table, surveying the heaping dishes. "But he doesn't really have all the techniques down."

Hutch was blushing. "I know. Guess I've forgotten how I used to do all this."

Starsky couldn't bear to see that eager face fall. Hutch was trying so hard. But between his clumsiness and erratic thought processes, he didn't quite have the hang of it anymore.

The three of them sat down to the meal Hutch had prepared with Christopher's help. The eggs Benedict weren't too bad, but Starsky couldn't figure out whether the other dish was black bean soup or terribly overcooked cranberry sauce. Or maybe oatmeal. He ate as much as he could of whatever it was. The rest of the food -- hard-to-ruin toast, marmalade, juice and coffee -- was a little easier to get down.

Following the meal, the three of them drove out to the Rehab Center for its Christmas gala. There, staff and patients alike celebrated the holiday, joined by family members and friends. Hutch's doctors and therapists greeted him with delight. Starsky noticed that his appearance was not lost on Ginny, the speech therapist, or even on Mrs. Kelly, the social worker. That individual took a moment later in the afternoon to draw Starsky aside.

"It's good to have you here, Lieutenant," she said with a smile. "We don't get to see you as often now."

As always, Starsky didn't know quite how to talk to this woman. She was friendly, caring, but he didn't feel he could actually relate to her. Still, she had Hutch's best interest at heart, and besides being a lot of help with insurance forms and cutting through other red tape, she did try to involve Starsky in the recovery process.

"I've been pretty busy at the office," Starsky told her now, taking a sip of punch to gather his thoughts. "I pick him up just about every day, though, as often as I can."

"I know. I was just wondering, how are you doing these days? We've never had time for that talk I wanted to have with you."

"Mrs. Kelly," Starsky began, already uncomfortable, "I know you'd like to talk -- but there's nothing else I really can think of to tell you. I'm fine. I do appreciate all you've done for Hutch."

The social worker smiled slowly. "His illness has affected you, too. It's all right to admit that."

"Sure, it's affected me. But he's getting better."

"I know. Have you spoken to his doctors lately? Have they indicated how much better Hutch is going to get?"

"What do you mean?" Starsky's defensive posture came to alert.

"I mean, you must know he may never regain his former skills -- not entirely. His short-term memory is still not good. His ability to reason isn't what it used to be. The physical problems are not as bad as they were, but I'm not sure he'll ever be as strong as he was..."

"I don't want to talk about it. He's gonna be fine."

Mrs. Kelly paused, obviously choosing her words very carefully. "But what if he isn't... fine? Isn't as perfect as he once was? What are you going to feel then?" Her glance was penetrating.

"I'm not gonna throw him out, if that's what you mean."

"No. I know that. But can you deal with his deficits? Can you cope with them?"

"Lady, Hutch is my friend. You think I'd drop him -- after all he's been through -- just because he's missing a few..." The sputtering words died away.

"No." The social worker's voice became infinitely kind. "But you -- and he, too, for that matter -- you're both counting on things getting back to the way they were before, exactly the way they were before. Don't you see? If Hutch can't do everything the way he used to -- he's going to fail, in your eyes and in his own. And Lieutenant -- David -- he doesn't want to fail you."

"You mean I'm pushin' him too hard?" Starsky felt real distress. "It's hard not to, I admit that. But you should see him -- he's the one who wants to keep exercising, workin' out all the time, and..."

"You're helping him a great deal. And I know you're not trying to make him feel like you're pushing. But you want him to do so well. He feels that."

"I know." Starsky set his empty paper cup on a table, his heart twisting with the dilemma. "I don't know how to help any other way."

"It's hard. You want to encourage him to try, and when he does, you're afraid he'll overdo. Am I right?"

Starsky nodded.

"Just... take things easy, as they come. Let him know you accept him just as he is." The two of them sat quietly for a few moments. When Starsky didn't speak after a while, Mrs. Kelly began again. "You told me his remaining family is in Minnesota, but... aren't there some other close friends here? The two of you seem so alone in all this."

Starsky looked away. "We have friends. Some of the cops we used to work with, our Captain and his family. A bunch of them came over to Hutch's place last night." He didn't tell her that the little party had broken up early because the noise and confusion in the small apartment had seemed to rattle Hutch. No one knew quite how to behave when Hutch's voice got that breaking, tremulous quality to it. Starsky knew it was just fatigue and loss of control, but to the others it sounded as if their old friend were close to tears. And none of them could bear to see him that way. It was difficult for Starsky, too.

"Isn't there anyone who... can take over for you from time to time? You work all day, drive out here to pick him up and then stay most of the evening, I understand. When do you get a break, David?"

"I had a break for two years." The clipped words just seemed to slip out. Starsky sighed, looking straight at the woman's concerned hazel eyes. "I'm okay. Cops' hours are never nine to five. After all these years, it's second nature to me."

"And there is no one else, is there?" Mrs. Kelly said softly.

Starsky shrugged. They had insulated themselves from the rest of the world, not needing anyone else. And they didn't now, either. But he knew it looked odd. Did she see him as only a devoted friend, or did she suspect...? He cut off the thought, not really caring what the woman's opinion might be of their relationship. She didn't seem judgmental anyway -- of course, in her line of work, people got paid to not be judgmental. But all that was beside the point. He could cope with Hutch. He had been doing just fine and he would continue to do so. That was the way things were.

"It's okay," the woman's soft voice came again. "I'm here, if you ever need to talk."

Starsky swallowed. "Thanks." He knew he wouldn't take the social worker up on her offer. There were no words he could use to talk about his feelings, not with anyone.

The party gradually wound down and it was time for them to leave. Hutch gathered the presents he'd received from the staff and other patients, handmade tokens of the season that he treasured as though they'd been bought on Rodeo Drive. Christopher helped him carry them to the car.

"I'll see you in the morning, Hutch," he told his charge as Starsky started the engine. The nurse had driven his own vehicle to the Center and was leaving to spend the rest of the holiday with his own family.

"Thanks, Chris." Hutch smiled up at him.

"Yeah. 'Preciate all you've done today," Starsky nodded. He'd begun to realize that without Christopher his life would be a lot more complicated, full of a lot more worry for Hutch. The young man waved and then turned to head for his own car.

They were on their own at last. Starsky put the car in gear, turning to look at his companion. "Having a good day?"

Hutch nodded. "I'm ready to go home, though." The blue eyes looked up. "If you are."

"That's where I'm headed." Starsky tried to keep his eyes on the road, but the fluttering feeling in the bottom of his stomach didn't help his concentration. Anticipation. Hope. Confusion. He felt all those things, and couldn't sort them out -- wondered if he ever would. Yet somehow, even the bewildering mix of emotions was pleasant. He was with Hutch, and whatever happened between them was bound to be good.

He parked in front of Venice Place and Hutch didn't argue when he fished the cane out of the back seat for him. His friend had grown fatigued at the Center's party and for once wasn't beyond admitting it. The steps seemed cruelly steep, but even though Starsky had brought up the possibility before, Hutch still wouldn't hear a word about relocating.

Inside, Hutch sagged onto the couch and watched Starsky plug the tree lights back in. He accepted another cup of eggnog and nodded agreement as Starsky put some more Christmas records on the turntable.

"Ready to open the rest of your presents, now?" Starsky was definitely ready to play Santa Claus. He'd been waiting all day to see Hutch's face when he unwrapped one box in particular.

"That big, flat one is for you." Hutch pointed it out. Starsky pulled it from under the tree and inspected the wrapping -- Hutch had used at least three different papers on it, because of its size. Curious, he couldn't resist tearing all the stuff off at once.

It was a painting Hutch had done. Starsky sat staring at it, feeling his eyes mist over, unable to say a word. The delicate colors spoke to him of Hutch's gentleness, the subject matter, of his spirit. Hutch had painted the beach, not quite with as much technique as he had possessed before, but certainly with the same feel for mood and wind. Standing before the incoming breakers stood two men; one was dark-haired, the other blond.

"Is that the two of us?" Starsky asked finally, Adam's apple jumping.

"Sure. Can't you tell?"

"Always fishing for compliments, aren't you?" Starsky teased. He kept his eyes on the painting, admiring its quality, loving the idea that Hutch had done it just for him. The two of us, lookin' out to sea. Reminds me of that day we threw our badges in the ocean. Yet he couldn't help wishing the two figures stood closer to each other. Too much space separated them. Hutch didn't intend deep psychological significance with the design, he told himself, it had just turned out that way. Yet the distance between the two of them was there, and no imagining would move them closer. The back of Starsky's throat began to ache, replacing the fluttery anticipation he'd been experiencing earlier.

"Thanks, Hutch," he said thickly. "I'm gonna put it up in my office. It's beautiful." He looked up to find Hutch beaming. He reached for his own favorite present for Hutch. "Here. This one's for you." Handing it over, he moved to sit on the couch with his friend.

It took several minutes for the fancy store-wrapping to yield to Hutch's fingers. He pulled at the gold seals, tugged off the tight ribbon and finally tore away the stiff, embossed paper. Then the lid on the box was lifted.

Hutch just stared for a moment. He looked up, then quickly back down at the present. Finally, he whispered, "Starsky..."

Starsky found himself able to do little more than whisper as well. "Go on... take it out of the box."

Hutch lifted it carefully, eyes bright. "A watch. A..." he groped for the term, "pocket watch." He laughed, delighted that he had remembered the word, and looked up at Starsky. "Time. You've given me time, haven't you?"

You understand! You love it as much as I hoped you would... One shoulder lifted, while Starsky felt his face grow warm. "It's a regular, analog watch, not one of those crappy digitals. They only show one minute at a time. This one shows you the time that's gone by, and the time that's coming up. It all matters, Hutch, it's all every bit as important as the instant we're living right now."

The clear eyes moved from the watch back to Starsky's face, seeming to caress him with their expression of tenderness. "That's beautiful, y'know? You're beautiful..."

Starsky sat there, feeling a rush of love for his friend. He was swept away by the emotions washing over them, growing between them. He had an impulse to reach out and pull Hutch into his arms. Don't blow it this time, a warning voice went off in his head, remembering that day on the beach last week when he'd hesitated too long. He opened his arms, moving closer. Hutch moved, too, into the circle of Starsky's arms. He let his head fall onto Starsky's shoulder. The dark-haired man let his embrace close with a sigh of gratitude.

You're here. With me. Safe. And I'll never let you go.

He folded Hutch close, wanting to shelter, to cherish. He let his head fall against Hutch's, closed his eyes. Pressing his lips into the gilt hair under them crossed his mind. He felt the ache of love all the way down to his soul.

Yet something about Hutch made him pause, something about the feel of the man in his arms. He was close, yes, needing the nearness. Yet where was the sense of surrender, of yearning that Starsky felt pulsing in his own veins? He held his breath for the space of a heartbeat, seeking his own emotion's counterpart in the body he held, finding caring but no desperation. This was an embrace of friendship, purely and simply that. Only that. As damning and as sweet. Starsky opened his eyes, gathered his frayed emotions together, anchoring them in the reality of the room around him. He squeezed Hutch reassuringly, patted his back, and released his hold. Hutch sat up, smiling, still clutching the watch.

"I'll keep it with me all the time," he promised in his soft, young-Hutch voice. Starsky closed his eyes, and behind his lids saw again the eager, boyish cop just out of uniform, glancing at the old-fashioned pocket watch his grandfather had given him. A sniper's bullet had ruined that timepiece years ago, but the case, in deflecting the bullet, had saved its owner's life. "Thank you, Starsky."

"I'm glad you like it," he managed. The moment had still been beautiful; Hutch loved the present, understood what Starsky had been trying to say with it. So he didn't fall info my arms with a declaration of love -- what am I -- ungrateful? I'm thankful for what I've got. It's damn precious. These things take time. His eyes fell on the watch still held in Hutch's hand. Didn't I just say we have plenty of that? When Hutch looked up at him again, he was able to smile fully, with no regrets.

I'll give you all the time you need, babe, he vowed silently. Yet his own need still beat in his veins. I want to find out if the way I remember it felt to be held tight in your arms is the way it really is. Hutch...

"Open this one now," he urged, handing over another, larger box. Starsky was particularly proud of having thought of this gift. As Hutch tore into the wrapping, he began to explain. "It's a video game. Kinda like that pong game that Huggy used to have at his old restaurant, only much better. You hook it up to the TV and use that little joy stick to move your men."

Hutch was looking at the different devices encased in Styrofoam, puzzled.

"It's called Pac Man. These games are gettin' real popular. With this set, you can buy more games; when you get tired of doing Pac Man we'll move you on up to Donkey Kong or something. I asked your doctors about buying it -- it should be good for you to practice eye-hand coordination with."

"What does it do?" Hutch asked, still looking lost.

"You have a grid on the TV. Pac Man has to gobble up power pellets and get away from the ghosts."

Hutch was quiet a few seconds longer. "And this is called scientific progress?"

Starsky broke up, ruffling his companion's hair.

They went on, opening the remaining presents, laughing and teasing each other about them and the mess they'd made with the paper and ribbons. Hutch volunteered to pick it all up, and he bustled around, making a lot of noise crumpling and squashing it into the trashcan. Starsky looked over the items on the coffee table.

"Looks like you got some more cards."

"Yeah. From the relatives in Minnesota." Hutch returned to his seat beside Starsky. He picked up one of the cards, glancing at it before handing it over. "This one's from my Aunt Priscilla Hutchinson. She wants to know when I'm coming for a visit."

"Uh-huh," Starsky mused, looking at the wintry, Minnesotan scene on the card. Then he looked up, directly at Hutch. "You read these yourself?"

"Sure." The nod was nonchalant. "I'm getting better, but handwriting is still hard. Aunt Priscilla typed hers -- she always does. Used to be a high school English teacher and she always does things very neatly and properly."

"Sounds charming." But realizing that Hutch's reading skill was progressing became one more present to Starsky. "You know, this has been quite a day. Plenty of good old-fashioned euphoric sentimentalism." He waited for Hutch's response to that.

"Hmmm? Euph -- what?" The wide brow crinkled in confusion. "I don't think I ever heard that word."

"Don't you remember? Oh, never mind." Starsky laughed. He'd always had a fondness for this holiday he'd adopted. This year, for the first time in a long time. the season meant something to him. Christmas, Hanukkah, Thanksgiving... they'd all been just days on the calendar to him without Hutch. Last year, he recalled, he hadn't gotten around to opening the gifts his mother had sent until two days later. This year, the old excitement and anticipation had come for him again.

"Euph..." Hutch was still trying to puzzle out the expression.

"Don't worry about it. I have a feeling you won't be complaining that I have the Christmas spirit anymore." So many things he doesn't quite remember. But with time, surely our love will come back to him.