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Distant Shores

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CHAPTER V

 

March, 1982

Once again, Hutch's night was filled with dreams. The experience with his abductors, their threats of death, still haunted him. But now they didn't wake him or craze him with fear as they once had. He dreamed the dreams and continued to sleep. Sometimes, the images played out long enough for him to begin a desperate flight to freedom. He would get away, as he knew he must have done at some point during his captivity, and begin to run for his life in the desert. That was what would usually wake him, the pounding of his heart, the straining of his muscles to succeed in the escape. He ran and ran... until in his dreams he lived for the running itself, not merely to escape the death they planned for him... until he was running toward something. Something he wanted, needed very much...

Hutch wrenched awake, his sweating skin sticking to the damp sheets twisted around him. He lay panting in the lamplight, trying to quiet his breathing and not disturb his caretaker, Christopher. If he woke at night, the LPN would come in, talk to him and try to ease his fears, but the talking actually upset Hutch more. It made him feel like he was incapable of handling things on his own. So this night he lay in silence, slowly letting his breathing return to normal. He was so tired, it was a matter of moments until he drifted under the veil of sleep again.

Running... toward what I need and want most... His steps slowed as he neared the place he sought. Gradually, out of the windblown landscape, objects became clear, and he recognized where he was. That flight of steps... Starsky's place.

Heart thumping, he climbed the stairs, pushing open the door to the place that had been like a second home. He looked in the living room, but Starsky wasn't there, nor in the kitchen. The bedroom, then?

There. Lying propped on an elbow, glowing bronze skin on deep blue sheets, was Starsky. Hutch leaned in the doorframe, indolently regarding him. The pose showed off the well-built chest, suggested intriguing secrets beneath the draped sheet. Shameless tease...

What are you waiting for?

You sure you want this?

No more lies, Hutch... we both feel the same way... c'mon...

The blue eyes beckoned, the slender hand pulled back the sheet to invite him in

Hutch reached to unbutton his collar and realized his clothing was already gone. He moved, feeling as though he were floating toward the bed. Then he was slipping under the crisp, cool percale, drawn close in a warm embrace, his body covered by his partner's taut, muscular form...

He wrenched awake painfully this time, found himself sitting upright in the bed. It was dark, still, and the room was his own. Not Starsky's... of course not. Where the hell do those dreams come from?

He sank back to his pillow, eyes staring into the darkness. He was hot, so he pulled the sheet from over him, one hand running the length of his body. All his nerves were strung tight with tension left over from the intimate dream. Hutch let his hand descend lower, curving over his genitals. He could have sworn that he had been hard and aching with desire, but that had not seemed to survive his waking. His penis was soft, and even though the few tentative strokes he gave it felt all right, it did not respond. He sighed, letting go, wondering when he would feel normal again. For a long time, there had been a residual soreness, a tenderness from the catheter. When he had become alert enough to notice its presence, having it there had disturbed him, given pain that was felt even after the thing had been removed. Starsky had realized he'd been hurting. Hutch recalled how his friend had told him not to worry, that soon even that part of him would be back in working order.

That was months ago... Still doesn't seem to be 'in working order'... He'd not thought much about his sexuality, and for the first time, that puzzled Hutch. He didn't know where to find the answer. Is that part of me taking longer to wake up, to recover? Is this normal? Or is it one more of those changes that are going to be... irrevocable? He shivered suddenly and tugged at the sheet until it covered him once more. Dr. Williamson talked about having to grieve over his losses... was sex to be another casualty of the coma?

He was certain that, at one time, sex had been easy and natural, pleasurable, an important part of his life. There had been some beautiful women in his bed... yet they seemed only vague shadows now. He knew he'd been married; he could remember Van's face, but he had no clear, specific memories of other women. He knew they had been real, but it was not them that he dreamed about. In his dreams, it was Starsky whom he held, who held him.

What do I remember... did I really feel desire for him? I remember wanting... I think... Why don't I feel the same way now? Is it because I only dreamed of wanting him? Because nothing ever really happened between him and me? Is that why my body... refuses to work? Because I love Starsky, but not that way? When I meet a woman I want, will I feel it, deep inside?

The conflict was too heavy to be solved in the middle of the night. Confused, Hutch dozed off again. Though his sleep was fitful, no more dreams came to him that night.

********

Hutch was still thinking about his dreams when he sat down with Dr. Williamson the following afternoon. He wasn't going to bring them up with the psychiatrist, but Williamson could usually tell when something was troubling him. Today was no exception.

"Hutch," the even voice began, "you seem to have something on your mind. Would you like to talk about it?"

Hutch stared out the window, searching for a way to begin. Finally, he asked, "How can I tell what really happened and what I just... imagined?"

"You mean about the kidnapping?"

"Yes," he answered hesitantly, "and about other things, too."

"Other things?"

"From before." Hutch brushed at a piece of lint on his pants leg. "I remember so much about my job... the police work... but other things seem like ghosts. The people I knew... it's all faded... I can't tell any more what was real life and what wasn't." He finally raised pleading eyes to the doctor. "I'm so confused..."

"We've talked quite a bit about your memories. I thought you felt you had remembered a lot."

"I know..." Hutch groped for a way to explain. "I do remember things... I know the events, the substance of what happened, but it's like I know it because someone told me... not like I was there. It's like I read a book about my life. I don't feel as if some of these things really happened to me. I can't remember how they felt."

The doctor paused in thought for a long moment, with Hutch growing more uncomfortable while he waited. Finally Williamson offered a suggestion.

"In many cases of coma, particularly those resulting from severe head injury, there is a great deal of memory loss, as well as a change in the person's emotional make-up. Some people lose a lot of their ability to get emotional about things -- people who aren't even upset that they are paralyzed, for example. There are some changes in your emotions. We've discussed this. If your memories seem faded, like you only heard about them second-hand, perhaps it's really the distance created by the coma itself. Your ability to feel those past experiences deeply has lessened a bit. But that actually is quite normal. You may recall something that seemed quite tragic when you were a child -- your ice cream cone fell on the ground, for example, -- and you cried about it. But remembering that today, you don't feel that same emotion."

Hutch nodded, not completely understanding what the doctor was getting at. At least Dr. Williamson had indicated this was normal for people like Hutch. Still, he was disturbed. "But what about the things that I can't be sure about -- I don't know if they really happened, or if I just dreamed them."

"What things?" The doctor's quiet probing continued.

"When I was in the plane, when I tried to get away... things like that. I'm sure most of them are true, but then there are... what seem like memories, too... but they are different, not like something real. I keep... dreaming about them..." His words ran out.

"Are you still having nightmares?"

"I dream a lot," Hutch shrugged. "They don't wake me as much. They don't scare me like they used to. But they bother me. I feel so strange..."

"Hutch, I know you're at home now, but you are still in the process of recovering. Your mind has to learn how to function -- to think and reason -- all over again. Have patience -- "

"But I have to know!"

"Why? Are you having dreams or recollections about something bad, or something you think could have prevented all this from happening to you?"

He hung his head. "Not exactly. I just... seem so stupid to have let them grab me. I was supposed to be a better cop than that." He was shaken by voicing that admission. He had not even acknowledged those personal guilt feelings to himself. Yet he realized they had been lurking under the surface.

"Do you remember the men who kidnapped you? Their faces?"

"Vaguely. They seem real clear in the dreams... then when I try to visualize them when I'm awake... they're gone..."

"Do you feel it's important to remember them?"

Hutch nodded, surprised by the question. "Of course. They have to be arrested."

"What if they never come back to this country?"

He didn't have an answer to that one. "Starsky would know..." He rubbed at his forehead. "I just want to have all the pieces. It feels strange walking around like... half a person. I want to be me, not something people who don't really know me just put back together the best way they could."

"Starsky really knows you."

"Yes. He knows me. But he's never lived inside my mind. He can tell me about things we did together, but he wasn't always there... and he doesn't know what I was feeling..."

"Are there some things that he could help you remember, though?"

Hutch nodded, though he didn't want to voice which things aloud. How would I ever ask him? He might think I was crazy... or worse...

"Why don't you ask him when you're uncertain?" The doctor waited for a reply; when none came he continued. "As for the rest -- Hutch, hypnosis can help us a great deal. If there are specific things that you want to recall, like the kidnappers' faces, we can hypnotize you and see if you can describe them or remember them when we wake you up. We can explore what you think are dreams and find out if they are memories after all. Would you want to do something like that?"

"I don't know." The prospect seemed frightening. It could be the key to his confusion, yet he feared losing control and talking aloud about the things that had been troubling him. "Can we decide... later?"

"Of course. I just wanted you to know it is an option we have. Try not to worry about your memories that you aren't sure are memories. If there is something that becomes so important you have to be sure, we can try what I suggested. Otherwise, trust yourself. Things you've experienced over and over in dreams are probably real. Or they represent real things that happened. Dreams can be symbolic, too, you know. And the way your thought processes have slowed down, you might not be able to interpret them. I'll be glad to help with things like that, if you can talk about them with me."

"What else can dreams be?"

"They can be something you want to happen. Or something you fear will happen."

Something I fear... or something I want...? Hutch shivered at the dual possibilities.

"They can't hurt you though," the doctor was saying solicitously. Hutch barely heard him.

********

April, 1982

Hutch was at loose ends. His therapy had progressed to the point where he only had to go to the Rehab Center three days a week. That left him with time on his hands. He usually spent a few hours puttering around the house, taking care of his plants, keeping the place clean, taking walks along the beach and working out. He was still trying to get back the strength that had been bled out of him while he lay inert for two years. Sometimes, when the crippling fatigue came crashing back after what he considered only a brief session, he felt all the work was useless, doubting that he would ever return to what he considered 'normal' again.

Today was Saturday, and Hutch found the beach more crowded than it was on weekdays. Dozens of people seemed to be out, seeking the sun, seeking companionship. He watched them walking in groups or in pairs, suddenly feeling left out. They all had somewhere to go, something definite to do. He was different. Starsky was working. Even Christopher was off today. It was a terrible, empty feeling to acknowledge that his life was so devoid of meaning and purpose. Sighing, Hutch turned back and headed for Venice Place, preferring the quiet solitude in his apartment to the loneliness of the crowded beach.

As he opened the front door, the phone was ringing. His leg was aching, making hurrying difficult, but he picked up the receiver mid-ring, hopeful that whoever was calling hadn't decided to hang up yet.

"Hello?"

"Hiya. It's me. Whatcha doin'?" Starsky's voice sounded so good coming through to him. Hutch sank down on the sofa before replying.

"Not much. I was just out for a walk."

"You sound tired. Christopher making you work too hard?"

"He isn't here. Someone in his family got sick, so I told him I'd be okay."

"Oh." There was a beat of silence. "Are you okay?"

"Sure. He hasn't been staying at night for two weeks now, you know."

"I know."

"I don't need a nursemaid."

"Know that, too."

"Sorry." He didn't mean to sound so petulant. A part of Hutch desperately wanted reassurance, yet another part of him pulled back from too much solicitude. He knew it was difficult for Starsky to know when and how much was required; he didn't often know that himself. If I was the same man who left two years ago, it wouldn't be so hard for him to talk to me...

Starsky sighed, starting over. "Guess what?"

"What?"

"I'm off today. That is, most of today -- I think."

"I don't get it."

Starsky chuckled. "I may or may not have to go downtown and question a prisoner. He's bein' brought back from Fargo, North Dakota, but the plane's been delayed. If he arrives, I'll have to run down there. Otherwise, I'm on my own." There was a pause. "Want me to come over?"

There was something Hutch wanted more. "No. Can I come over to your place?"

"Sure!" Starsky seemed surprised, but his hesitation lasted only a second. When he spoke again, his voice was eager. "I'll come over and pick you up. Wanna go out for lunch?"

"Yeah."

Lunch at Huggy's was fun. Sitting in the booth at Huggy's, laughing about old times, listening to Huggy's stories about the neighborhood, he felt the depression lift.

They returned to Starsky's place and hooked up the Pac Man, attempting a game together. Starsky was better at it, but Hutch didn't mind; it was fun watching his friend laugh and enjoy. He didn't get to see that side of Starsky very often now.

"You're like a kid with that thing," he told him, smiling. "I think you bought it for yourself instead of me."

Grinning, Starsky looked up. "This was bought for purely therapeutic reasons. But I admit I always was better at stuff like this than you."

"You wish. I'll show you on the next round." He reached for the joystick as the telephone began to ring. Starsky got up to answer it. Hutch was busy making Pac Man gobble up power pellets when his friend crouched next to him.

"That was Dobey. The plane got in. I have to go downtown."

Hutch was disappointed. "How long?"

"Could be a couple of hours, at least." He looked sorry to be breaking up the day, too. "Hey, you want to come with me? You'd enjoy seeing the gang down at the station again."

"No." Starsky had invited him down a couple of times before, but his answer had been the same. Hutch just wasn't ready to face Metro yet. He didn't want to go back looking like an invalid. He didn't want to show up until he could work there again.

Starsky shrugged, knowing not to push him. "Okay. I shouldn't be too long. You can hang around here, okay?"

"Okay. I'll make dinner. If you've got anything in the refrigerator," he tried to tease.

"I shopped yesterday," Starsky chuckled. He rose to get his jacket and holster. "Call if you need anything."

Hutch nodded absently, watching Starsky get ready for work. It had been a long time since he'd seen him slip the well-worn holster on and check the heavy Beretta. Being a cop was all Starsky knew and Hutch had no doubts that he was still one of the city's finest. But I'm not out there with you anymore... Starsky waved goodbye as he hurried out the door.

The apartment seemed too quiet as Hutch sat alone on the floor. He switched off the Pac Man, no longer interested in bettering his score. Sighing, he got up and wandered aimlessly through the rooms. This was Starsky's place; every piece of furniture, all the eclectic decor carried his inimitable stamp. It was pretty much as Hutch remembered it, yet there were no longer the many plants he'd given his friend over the years. He took care of my plants, why are his all gone?

Stepping into the bedroom, Hutch looked around. The place was as neat as Starsky always kept it, bed neatly made, closet door closed, dresser dusted. There was one drawer slightly open; something was sticking partway out. Hutch moved over to investigate.

When he pulled out the drawer, he discovered it was an old, stuffed toy bear that had been protruding. He held it in his hands for a long moment, realizing that it held some significance, yet not knowing at first just what. This used to be at my place... he mused. And then he remembered. It had been given to him. By... Terri? The girl he loved who died. The memory came back sharply. He'd had to watch Starsky lose the woman he loved, all because of a deranged criminal who'd carried a grudge against his partner. Thus intertwined with their work, he supposed that was why the memory wasn't hard to find. It was all there, his own sense of helplessness, the anguish he'd felt at seeing Starsky suffer, the quiet peace that had descended over him when he'd managed to soothe his friend's pain at last, to share it. They'd cried together. And he remembered that night in Starsky's kitchen when they'd drunkenly opened the presents she'd left behind. Starsky's had been that silly book. Hutch's had been the bear. He closed his eyes, trying to remember the note. '... I entrust Ollie and Dave... please love them both... don't let either of them change...' Tears welled in Hutch's eyes. He hadn't followed through on his part of Terri's bequest. Starsky did seem changed. Time and too much pain had eaten away at him, leaving him a quieter, less easily reached man than he had been before.

He clutched the bear tightly, closing his eyes, trying to picture Starsky bringing it from Hutch's place to his own apartment. You still must miss her and love her... if you wanted this possession of hers to remember her by... he sighed, intending to replace the memento in the drawer.

There was something else inside. He recognized the lock box where he'd kept his gun immediately. Hutch carefully tried the lid and found it open. There lay his Python. He just looked at it, didn't touch. He knew how weak his right hand and wrist still were, didn't want to confirm his inability to hold the weapon steady. Starsky had told him he'd brought the gun here, rather than leave it in his unoccupied apartment. Was there another reason, though? Did you bring it over here because you wanted to have something of mine around, like having something of Terri's?

With a murmur of regret, Hutch closed the gun box, nestled Ollie down beside it and closed the drawer. He raised up off his haunches and stood, feeling at a loss. Deciding he was tired, he lay down on Starsky's bed. There, where Starsky slept, he found some comfort, felt close to him even though he wasn't there. You've been with women here, with Terri a long time ago... Did we ever...? Hutch couldn't even put the question into words. He rubbed his eyes. Close as they were now, there was a distance, a remoteness he sensed from time to time in Starsky. Could I tell if anything did happen from the way you act with me now? Wouldn't you have made some indication? He wasn't certain. And if they had ever touched each other in love, he didn't know if Starsky would feel the same now. I'm changed. So are you. Even if we'd want to go back, could we?

He shifted position, trying to get comfortable, pulling the rough bedspread down from the pillow. He rested his head there, noting the scent of Starsky's shampoo, of his body. He inhaled deeply, aching with the thought of holding Starsky the way he had in dreams. A feeling surfaced, something he identified at once as true memory and not imagination. We felt so much for each other, sometimes it really did seem like love. But it was hard to talk about it, even knowing we were both aware of those vibes. He closed his eyes tight, searching for a recollection of putting those feelings into words. Whatever fit with the memories he did have seemed to be locked away, meant only to come to him in diffuse dreams. Memories or symbols? He didn't know which.

He must have dozed off; when he stirred sometime later, Hutch realized the angle of sunshine slanting in through the window had changed. Stretching out the kinks in his legs, he sat up on the side of the bed. He ran a hand through his hair and stood, then remembering he had said he would prepare dinner, headed out of the bedroom and toward the kitchen.

'First, wash your hands,' he silently quoted his therapist's instructions, turning on the water and picking up the soap. While lathering his hands, his eyes glanced out the window. What he saw made all thoughts of cooking fade from his mind.

The Torino! He had all but forgotten that Starsky had told him he'd kept the car when he purchased his new one. Hutch headed out into the yard, absently wiping his soapy hands on his pants legs.

The car was beautiful, as sweet a sight to his eyes as any he could imagine. And to think I used to complain about this thing on a daily basis. Hutch caught himself grinning as he ran a hand along one smooth, glossy fender. Both of us knew I was just teasing... He tried lifting the door handle and found to his pleasure that the car was unlocked. In a matter of seconds, he was behind the wheel.

Its black leather warmed from the sun, the bucket seat seemed to enfold him in a nostalgic embrace. He put his hands on the steering wheel, gripping it tightly as he might do if driving in some high-speed chase after the bad guys. How many times did you ever let me drive this buggy? He closed his eyes, scanning his memories. The first that occurred to him was related to the battered toy bear he'd found inside. I drove you home from the hospital after you'd spent the night waiting for news about Terri. Starsky had been exhausted, out on his feet, and hadn't so much as quibbled when Hutch offered to drive. There had been other times, few and far between, when he'd let Hutch take the wheel of his prized automobile; perhaps once only when he'd actually made the suggestion -- to let Hutch see how well the Torino handled. Coupla times you were in no condition to object. A picture of Starsky, unconscious but still writhing from deep abdominal cramps caused by a killer's poisoning, came to Hutch then, seeming to blot out the late afternoon sunshine. You'da had a fit if you'd seen the way I took those corners that night, buddy. But I got you to the hospital in time... got back with the syringe the professor had intended for me, too, in time... in time... I had to concentrate, had to stay alert, had to maneuver through the traffic, not lose my cool...

"Damn." One fist trembled as it pounded ineffectually against his knee. No way could I come through for you like that now. He desperately searched for a more pleasant memory. When it came, he smiled despite himself. Another case, a couple of years later. They'd gone undercover looking for, of all things, moonshiners in California, and Starsky had felt it was his duty to sample the evidence. Trying to humor him, Hutch had repeatedly told him he could drive, all the while piling his staggering partner into the Torino's passenger seat. Those were good days... good times... but so long ago now...

The inside of the car was stuffy, too warm. Hutch realized that he would only become more depressed if he stayed where he was, yet he couldn't bring himself to let go quite so quickly. He turned to glance at the seat next to him, wondering how many thousands of miles he'd ridden there. Despite his complaints, he'd felt safe there, at home with his partner's driving. Most of the time... How many hours did we just spend sitting here, on stake out? Must have been hundreds. Thinking of the time, he realized he'd been wasting his own. He pulled out his pocket watch and determined after several moments' consideration that it was nearly five o'clock. He had forgotten he'd been about to start dinner. Shaking his head in consternation at his brief attention span, Hutch climbed out of the Torino and went back inside.

There he discovered that he had forgotten to turn off the water; it still ran in a strong stream down the drain. He washed his hands again, this time drying them on a paper towel he carefully dropped in the trashcan. A search of Starsky's cupboards and refrigerator left him with the decision to make hamburgers and macaroni and cheese. That pleased Hutch because only last week they had served that as the menu for a practice meal his therapy class had cooked. Concentrating hard, he calculated the steps necessary to get everything done correctly. Shape burgers. Boil water. Turn on oven... He hesitated. What if Starsky didn't come home when the hamburgers were cooked? They'd get cold. Or overdone. Cook the macaroni, but let the burgers wait. Satisfied with his decision, Hutch checked the pan of water and macaroni he'd set on the stove. It wasn't boiling yet. He went to sit on the couch until it did.

What was Starsky doing right now, he wondered. Questioning a suspect? Hutch remembered how they had done that before. Most often, he'd play the good guy, gregarious, fair-minded, pointing out to the prisoner that his hot-headed buddy was likely to do bodily harm if the truth wasn't forthcoming. Other times, they'd reverse the tactic. Or both of us would play hardnosed... Had to be, out on those streets we patrolled... Lost in the past, he tried to visualize how he and Starsky would be doing things now. He's a lieutenant so we wouldn't be partners. God, I miss working with him so much. Just miss working, for that matter. Filling the days with repetitious exercises and therapy didn't make a man of thirty-five -- thirty-seven, he corrected with a twinge -- feel exactly fulfilled. I want to work, do something! I just want to feel useful.

The sound of something sizzling in the kitchen caught at his attention. Hutch leaped up from the couch, cursing his lack of concentration, and hurried to the stove. The pan of water had boiled dry, macaroni was congealed into a scorched, brown mass in the bottom. He yanked it off the burner, giving a yelp when the hot handle burned his fingers. "Damn!" He put the pan in the sink, taking hold of the edge of the counter, trying to calm down. He felt foolish, stupid for not paying attention to what he was doing, for letting his mind wander. Breathing slowly, he thought about what Ginny had said during cooking class -- 'mistakes happen to everybody. A good cook either fixes them, or learns to deal with them.' That's it, he told himself, you burned pans even before you got sick. It's no big deal. Take care of it.

His stinging fingers required attention first. He ran the cold water and held the injured digits under it until the pain lessened, pleased that he had thought of the remedy. Then he looked for some antiseptic and band-aids. He pulled out drawer after drawer, and looked through all the cabinets, too, but couldn't find any first-aid things. Finally, he made a tour of the house, searching methodically. When he found the items in the bathroom cabinet, he shook his head, feeling he should have known to look there first. He took care of the minor wound, then went back to the kitchen.

He got out another pan, found more macaroni, and put it on to boil, this time staying nearby to watch it. Then he turned to clean up the mess he'd made. He was just dumping the ruined pasta in the trashcan when he heard the front door open.

"Starsky," he called without looking up.

"Yeah. It's me." Starsky's voice sounded strained. Hutch listened to him moving about the living room, then heard a groan as his friend sat heavily on the couch. He put down the pan and hurried to find out what was wrong.

"Starsk?"

His friend looked up, blue eyes dark and wide in a pale face. He held his arms wrapped across his stomach, and there was a handkerchief tied awkwardly around his upper left arm. There was a red stain darkening the cloth.

"What happened?" Hutch moved to him at once, crouching down to meet him at eye level.

Starsky shook his head, obviously trying to get himself together before speaking. "Damn these rookie cops. They didn't search the prisoner well enough. Bastard had a knife in his boot. When we tried to lead him to his cell, he went for it and slashed me on the arm. I don't think it's too bad." He essayed a smile, trying to make light of the injury. "Dobey said I should go to the hospital, but I told him that wasn't necessary. Besides, you were here waiting and I..."

"Let me take a look at it," Hutch heard himself saying. He moved to sit beside Starsky, gently lifting the sodden handkerchief. There had been a good deal of blood. Perhaps the wound wasn't serious, but that didn't mean it hadn't bled a lot. When he tugged at it, Starsky winced. "Easy," Hutch told him. "We better get you into the bathroom before we do anything to this."

He assisted him to stand, guiding him with a hand under his elbow, and Starsky let him lead the way. In the bathroom, he sat on the lid of the john while Hutch turned on the water and got out a washcloth. "You better take your shirt off."

Starsky began undoing his buttons, then slipped one arm out of its sleeve. The bandage was in the way on the other side, however. "Can you untie that?" he asked.

"Sure." Hutch looked at it closely, then loosened the knot. When he pulled on it, he realized that the blood had dried, effectively pasting the cloth to the open wound.

Starsky realized the same thing. "Shit. That's gonna hurt when you pull it off."

"I'll be careful." He used the washcloth dampened with warm water to soak the cloth away from the torn edge of skin. That eased the job, but he didn't accomplish it without starting the bleeding again.

"Mmmn." The sound of pain was cut off abruptly as Starsky sucked in a breath. He sat there white-lipped while Hutch applied pressure to the wound with another washcloth.

It was awkward to hold the position, standing bent over him. Hutch wrapped his free arm around Starsky's shoulders to give himself more leverage. Only the sound of Starsky's ragged breathing marked the passage of time.

Hutch realized that he was holding his friend, taking care of him. Here we are, just like old times. He could be useful again, he could do something for his friend, rather than always being the one who needed Starsky's care. And there was more.

How good you feel in my arms, as though your being there is very right... You're so strong, yet needing me, accepting and giving back... A profound emotional certainty rose up in Hutch, blotting out everything else for a moment. I know, no matter what, I wouldn't have willingly given up your friendship -- or your love -- I would never have wanted to lose you forever... I'd have fought, to escape to live... That was why, in his dreams, he was struggling to escape, to get away from his captors and return to where he belonged. To get back to you... The thought took his breath away.

"Hutch? You okay?" A strained, concerned voice brought him out of his reverie.

"Sure." He blinked, trying to pull himself together. "The bleeding's almost stopped." He eased up on his desperate hold around Starsky's shoulders, checking to be sure that what he'd said was indeed true. "Hold this," he directed, helping Starsky to keep pressure on the wound while he slipped the shirtsleeve down his arm and off. He dropped the ruined shirt in the tub, then he turned to open the cabinet door and get out the first-aid things. He let his mind go blank as he worked, using an antiseptic pad to cover the cut, wrapping Starsky's bicep round and round with gauze and taping it securely in place, realizing that if he'd tried to consciously think out each step before he did it, that he might get nervous and confused. Letting his hands do what they remembered how to do made the procedure much easier.

 

As he finished, he felt Starsky's eyes on him, warm and proud. "You did that real well, Hutch," his patient offered almost shyly.

He shrugged. "Guess some things a guy never forgets, huh?" He found another washcloth and used it to clean the blood that had dripped down Starsky's forearm. He felt his heart thudding in his chest so hard his friend could probably hear it. They hadn't been this close, he realized, since he'd been in the hospital. And then he'd been the patient, with Starsky giving him some intimate assistance. He ran out of things to do, finally, and realized he hadn't looked Starsky in the eye in several minutes. He started to, but then his gaze was caught by something unexpected.

Scars, faintly red, with raised silvery traces ran across and down his chest, dividing the dark hair swirling across the musculature. For a split second, Hutch couldn't figure out how they got there. Then he remembered. Starsky had been shot, very badly. 'Massive damage...' Whose voice had said those words? Long hours of waiting, praying, hoping... those could never be forgotten... But he very nearly had, or at least he hadn't thought about the marks that damage might have left. On the beach that day, when Hutch had been complaining about his leg brace, Starsky had mentioned having these scars. Fascinated, a little scared by them, yet wanting to understand, his hand lifted, fingers just brushing along the edge of the one that curved over Starsky's left breast. So close to your heart... Then, realizing in shock what he had done, sensing that Starsky had only managed not to flinch away by sheer force of will, he jerked his hand back and let it fall uselessly to his side.

He felt horribly embarrassed to have called attention to the scars, and shocked to see that his friend had suffered such agony. He was totally at a loss to what he should do to make amends for his thoughtlessness.

"Hutch," Starsky said, very softly. His fingers reached out to clasp Hutch's cold ones, tugging gently. "It's okay." He bent, trying to get Hutch to look him in the eye. "Say something, huh?"

"Do they hurt?" he blurted. He could have kicked himself.

Starsky didn't seem to mind. "No. They feel tight, sometimes. But these on the outside don't really... hurt..." His voice died away.

Hutch managed to look at him. "On the outside?" he whispered, scared to understand just what Starsky meant.

His throat was cleared, rather noisily. "Yeah. Inside -- well, let's just say if I try to run like I used to, I pay for it the next day."

Hutch stood there, lost in the depths of those calm blue eyes, thinking about the words he'd used. Inside, you have scars, too... real ones, and ones no one, not even an x-ray, could find, don't you? He wished he possessed some magic that would take them all away, yet he knew that no amount of recovery on his part would grant him that ability. How do I ask you to forgive me for not being there? Yet there in Starsky's eyes was the answer. No forgiveness was necessary.

The warm, supple fingers squeezed his own, then let go. "Look at us," Starsky said, smiling crookedly, "anybody'd think we were a couple of saps."

"Yeah." Hutch still couldn't tear his eyes away from the blue ones that held his own captive.

Starsky sniffed. "Is that something burning in the kitchen?"

That broke the spell. "Oh, no!" Hutch lamented, dashing once again to investigate the damage his forgetfulness had done.

Starsky followed him out, shrugging into a new shirt as he walked. Together, they took care of the mess -- this pan wasn't as severely damaged as the first, at least -- and finished getting dinner ready. Starsky insisted that Hutch had done most of it himself, and praised the hamburgers when they were finished. "You did a great job -- and don't worry about those crummy pans. If they weren't so cheap they wouldn't have boiled dry so fast. Besides, you used to ruin them all the time, too."

"I know. But I guess I should have put in more water." Hutch felt his cheeks turning red. "Anyway, it did something good after all."

"What?" Starsky asked around a mouthful of macaroni and cheese.

"When I burned my fingers on the first pan, I found out where you keep the first-aid stuff. Came in handy later." He grinned, pleased with himself.

"You're really somethin', you know that?" Starsky gave him a beautiful smile, then went back to his food.

The evening ended after another round of Pac Man, and Starsky drove Hutch back to his own apartment. It was only after the sound of Camaro's engine died away that Hutch realized that Starsky had been hurt with no partner at his side to protect him. I should have been there. I should be there again... the sooner the better. He went to bed, determined to get back to work, to be where Starsky needed him once more.