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Distant Shores

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BOOK FIVE -- RENASCENCE

 

CHAPTER I

 

Hutch took a cab to Metro, dressed in his best clothes, anxious for the meeting with Dr. Zephram. He had told no one, not even Starsky, about the appointment he'd made with the department physician. He'd decided that it would be a terrific surprise when he told his friend he was back on the force. He was a little nervous, hoping he wouldn't run into anyone he knew. For all his eagerness to begin working here again, he still felt he wasn't quite ready. Of course, I'm not ready to take on the duties of a detective sergeant of homicide just yet. That will come in due time. For now, a desk job or anything where my experience can be put to good use will do just fine.

Dr. Zephram's secretary motioned him to a seat in the waiting room, and Hutch tried not to look anxious as he sat there. After what seemed like an hour, the doctor said he could come in.

The older man, grey-haired, spectacled, stood and reached across his desk for Hutch's hand. Hutch shook it, trying to put as much strength in the gesture as he could muster, though the weakness on his right side still annoyed him.

"Have a seat, son," the doctor offered with a smile. "What can I do for you today?"

Hutch didn't quite understand. "I wanted to talk to you... about getting back on the force. Didn't your secretary tell you?"

"Of course, of course." Gruffly clearing his throat, the doctor began pawing through papers on his desk, finally coming up with a folder. "Ah, yes, this one's yours." He opened the cover, studying the first page with his reading glasses down on the bridge of his nose. "Yes. Yes. Hutchinson." The glasses came off, the folder was put down and the doctor stared right into Hutch's eyes. "Yes. I'm familiar with your case from the news, of course. There hasn't been an article in the paper for a few months, has there?"

Hutch shrugged. "No. Starsky -- Lieutenant Starsky -- told me the Sunday paper had a story on me when I first got back to the States."

"Yes, and the TV news kept running updates on your progress in the hospital. I didn't realize you'd gone home, though."

"I've been home since before Christmas."

"I see. Can you tell me a little about what you've been doing since then?"

"Well, I had outpatient therapy every day for a couple of months. Now I only have to go in two days a week. At first, a nurse stayed with me at night, but I'm able to do everything on my own now. I'm ready to come back to work."

"Hmmm. Yes." Large fingers drummed idly on the desktop for a long moment. "That's very commendable, Hutchinson," the doctor said slowly, "but surely you don't intend to ask for a return to active duty on the streets."

Hutch grinned. "No. I know I'm not up to street strength. But I wasn't bad at paperwork." He tried to chuckle, but the result was somewhat weak. "Really, sir, whatever the department has for me, I'll be glad to take."

This time the doctor didn't mumble or drum his fingers. "Have you talked to Captain Dobey about this? Or your former partner?"

Hutch shook his head, beginning to feel that this doctor wasn't understanding what he'd been trying to say.

"Son, I believe your friends would try to discourage you from taking on more than you can handle."

"What does that mean?" Hutch was suddenly on guard.

"It's my opinion that you are a long way from going back to work on the police force."

A warm flush began to unpleasantly wrap itself around Hutch. "How..." he struggled to keep his voice under control, "how can you say that?"

"I've looked over your medical records."

Hutch shook his head in disbelief. "But... don't you have to have a review board hearing? You didn't even know who I was... when I came in here..." His treacherous voice was getting the better of him. He knew he sounded as though he were on the verge of tears.

"I wasn't sure which of several appointments today you were," the doctor patiently corrected. "I've had your records from the San Fernando Rehab Center sent over. The entire review board has taken them under consideration. It was thought that testing you would be unnecessary since you underwent a battery of tests just three weeks ago at the center. In most cases those are the same tests we use to determine suitability of candidates coming before the review board." He drew a breath, then pushed some papers aside and opened the folder, apparently to show Hutch what he was talking about. "Look here. This indicates that you are reading on a sixth grade level. Your mathematical ability is even lower. On tests measuring reasoning ability, you score far below the lowest acceptable levels. Your short-term memory is spotty at best. You are still taking medication that would preclude your using most equipment. Your physical strength and stamina are far below par. The committee simply cannot reinstate you at this time. Even such positions as equipment officer or khaki officer are quite beyond you at this time. Of course, your many years of dedicated service do carry some weight with us. And we realize that your injuries were sustained in the line of duty. You could fill a kind of dummy position, created precisely to be in tune with your limited resources, but I'm sure that being a glorified janitor would not be what you wish. Keep working at your therapy, Mr. Hutchinson, and I'm sure that as your skills improve, we can help you out at some point in the future." The folder was closed abruptly, then the doctor sat back and looked at Hutch.

"Of course, you will continue to receive your pay and insurance, as you have been throughout the time since you were found, and which, I believe, you have been receiving retroactively from the time of your disappearance." Dr. Zephram put the folder away. "Is there anything else?" he asked quietly.

Hutch just sat there staring at the man in disbelief. He was stunned, hurt and confused. All he could understand was that he had been summarily rejected. Instead of this being a preliminary meeting to set up a time for him to come before the review board, it was a dismissal. He hadn't wanted to be handed a job on a silver platter, but he did deserve more than this. Cheeks hot with embarrassment, he dropped his gaze. Why'd I think the department would roll the red carpet out for me? Didn't I bitch about the system for years before all this happened? Why did I think I'd be welcomed back with open arms? He looked back up, glaring at the doctor, letting all his anger and frustration show. The bigwigs always were against us, Starsk. They never understood what it really takes to make a good cop...

He cleared his throat. "Well, I guess that just about sums it up." He stood, the ice in his eyes pinning the older man. "I just hope you need a job someday, that you need to feel useful and worthwhile. If you come to me, mister," he hesitated, then said it the way it came into his mind, "I'll tell you to eat shit." He turned abruptly, needing to get out of the office as quickly as possible. His right foot slid on the polished floor, causing his ankle to twist. Ignoring the pain and the humiliation of looking weak in front of the bastard who had so curtly dashed his hopes, he strode out of the room, venting his anger by slamming the door as hard as he could.

By the time he reached the parking lot, Hutch was shaking from the combined effects of adrenalin and despair. He stood there a moment, bewildered, unable to figure out what to do next He caught sight of a cab and yelled loudly, attracting the driver's attention, then hurried to catch the vehicle.

"Hutch? Hutch, what are you doing here?" He turned, hesitating for only a second until he saw the caller was Sally Hagen. He couldn't face her, couldn't face anyone. All he wanted to do was get away. Running for the cab, he opened the door and threw himself inside. Before Sally could recover and call after him again, the driver sped off from the curb.

His mind was a maelstrom of emotion by the time he returned to Venice Place. He got out of the cab, flinching at the yell the driver gave him, remembering only belatedly to pull money out of his pocket to pay the man. Trembling, he climbed the steps to his home.

He slammed the door behind himself, panting, nameless fears making his heart thud in his chest. He could hardly breathe, could barely see. Rubbing one hand over his eyes, his vision gradually cleared. He stood where he was, taking in the sight of his furniture, his possessions.

He couldn't bear to look at the place so carefully arranged -- it was a sham, a farce. What good did it serve to have his home looking just as it had when he'd been kidnapped? Did that mean he had returned unharmed and unchanged? Obviously not. He was not the man who had left this place one June morning in 1979. Though he had felt safe here, happy to have things as they had always been, now the perfection of the place mocked him. It was like a museum, not like a real dwelling. Suddenly, he couldn't stand the ordered furniture and plants, the carefully arranged paintings and knickknacks. He looked for something breakable, wanting to watch it shatter. He picked up the cherub statue on the coffee table, and flung it across the room. It gave a satisfying crunch as it fell, smashing to a hundred fragments. Broken in pieces, just like me. All the king's horses, all the king's men couldn't put Humpty Dumpty together again...

Anger and disappointment were seething in him, boiling over. There was nowhere to run, nothing he could do but take his feelings out on the only available target, his apartment. He let himself go, picking up and crashing every breakable in sight, battering the furniture, using the scissors he found on the desk to gouge the fabric of the couch cushions, throwing their guts all over the room. He uprooted plants, tossed the dirt and broken pottery down and smashed them under his feet, cursing, screaming out all the wrath and frustration that had been building in him since he realized he'd lost two years of his life -- two precious years that could never be bought back, could never be rescued from the oblivion that he had been thrown into.

He flung open cupboard doors, finding more breakables, throwing his plates and glasses on the linoleum. Running out of things to destroy in the kitchen, he moved on to the bedroom. He pulled out bureau drawers, dumping their contents, slashing clothes with the sharp scissors. It didn't matter, none of it did. They were all clothes worn by that other man who used to live here. This man, this crazed, gasping madman didn't need jeans that were too big, suits that didn't fit. He had nowhere to go, no job to do.

He turned to the paintings stacked against the room divider. He kicked at them, bashing in the canvasses, tearing up paper, snapping wooden frames in two. "Go to hell!" he rasped, voice breaking in an agony of despair. "Leave me alone!"

He turned, caught sight of his ravaged face in the mirror, and grabbed up the first thing that came to hand, a small lamp, to smash the image staring back at him. Mirror and glass shattered, flying all over the dresser. Hutch screamed profanity as loud as he could.

"Hutch? Hutch!" Someone was shouting his name, over and over, but he didn't care. He looked around for something more to break, found his jewelry case, raised it up and threw it down. Cuff links, rings and chains flew all over the chaotic room.

"Stop it!" Hands grabbed at his shoulders, gripping as tight as they could. "I said stop it!" He was shaken roughly. Fingertips touched his cheek, trying to get him to look up at the speaker.

"No! Let me go!" He tried to wrench away.

"Hutch -- babe, what's wrong? Sally said she saw you getting in a cab at Metro -- Tell me what's goin' on!"

His fury refocused, took firmer possession of his soul. Hutch drew back his arm, balled his hand into a fist and swung wildly, aiming for Starsky's face.

The other man dodged the blow, making Hutch even more angry.

"Let me help you, for God's sake, Hutch!"

"Leave me alone! Get the hell out of my life!"

"Why are you doing this? What's wrong? Why are you trashing the place?"

"I don't want this! I don't want any of it! It's all fake! It has nothing to do with me. You kept it all like this -- you don't know anything about what I want! I want to forget everything I had and everything I was -- get out of my life!" He struggled, throwing himself out of Starsky's hold.

********

As Starsky watched, Hutch staggered away from him, favoring his right leg, but refusing to acknowledge the disability. For a moment, Starsky was speechless, totally at a loss to comprehend what was going on. All he knew was that Sally had come dashing to his office, telling him she'd seen Hutch running out of the building. He hadn't stopped to investigate; just knowing that his friend had for some reason come to Metro and left in a hurry was enough to worry him.

Yet he hadn't expected the scene that greeted him at Venice Place. Hutch was in hysterics, using foul language the likes of which he hadn't uttered since he'd disappeared, and in a matter of minutes he had wrecked the apartment.

It flashed through Starsky's mind that he might not be able to handle his out-of- control friend. He turned around, trying to locate the phone in the disaster area, but the sound of a crash brought him back.

Hutch had fallen. Either he'd tripped, or his weak right leg had simply given out, and he lay in a heap on the sun porch. Heart pounding, Starsky approached.

He bent down, half-expecting to be rebuffed again, but Hutch was quieting down. He lay there glassy-eyed, breathing shallowly, muttering unintelligible phrases. When Starsky tried to help him up, he didn't even seem to realize he was there.

But when he put his weight on his right leg, he groaned aloud, gripping his knee in distress. Starsky helped him to the bed and got him to lie down, then went back to look for the phone.

********

Hours later, Starsky dragged himself out of his Camaro and up the steps to his apartment. He was dead on his feet, emotionally drained and monumentally pissed off. It had taken hours, but he had dealt with Hutch and then gone back to find out what had happened at Metro. Now his partner lay in sedated sleep back at the Rehab Center and Dr. Zephram's ears were ringing from the chewing out Captain Dobey had given him. Starsky, however, hadn't gotten to say half of what he'd wanted to to the insensitive doctor. There would be time for that later, however.

Exhausted, he pulled off his clothes and tossed them toward a chair on his way to the shower. He turned the water on full force and stood under the punishing spray, hardly feeling it. His mind seemed to have become numb also; on the drive home he had felt calmer, less worried, less terrified of what he'd seen Hutch doing. Now he had time for the hurt to begin seeping in.

He didn't know what he was saying. Dobey had said so, as had Christopher and Sally, when he'd told them. Hutch didn't really want Starsky out of his life. Yet Starsky himself couldn't help feeling the sting of those words. They felt sharper than the smarting shower spray. They beat at him, playing over and over again in his mind.

"I don't want this! I don't want any of it! It's all fake! It has nothing to do with me. You kept it all like this -- you don't know anything about what I want! I want to forget everything I had and everything I was -- get out of my life!"

The words pounded at Starsky, mocking everything he'd done for Hutch in the last year. He was hurting, lashing out, venting his anger... But people often speak the greatest truth when they are hysterical, when inhibitions are broken down. Starsky turned off the water and stepped out of the tub, rubbing a towel over his back and legs.

That bastard Zephram told him he couldn't be a cop, any kind of cop -- what do I expect he should have done? He'd been planning on surprising me... if only I'd known, I could have paved the way, made sure the review board gave him a fair chance, cushioned his disappointment. But it didn't go down that way. He wanted to be independent. And now he says he wants to stay that way. Maybe he does mean it. The world is a different place to him. He can't cope trying to go back to the way things were. It probably does seem to him as though the only thing he can do is get rid of all vestiges of his past and start over.

Starsky crawled into bed, trying to turn off his thoughts. He said he wanted to forget everything he ever had and ever was... And it felt like he wanted to lump our partnership, our friendship, our whole goddamned life together in with all of that. I don't want to believe that's what he really wants... Starsky pulled the covers up over his shoulders and concentrated on going to sleep.

But, oh God, it hurts so damn much...

********

The next day, Sally and Huggy met him at Venice Place to try to pick up the pieces left in the wake of Hutch's destruction. Starsky, feeling grim, didn't have much to say, and the feeble jokes of his two friends did little to help his mood.

"I've cleaned up this devastated domicile plenty of times," Huggy mused as he scooped stuffing from the couch into the trashcan, "but this is the first time my man Hutch messed the place up all by himself."

"You know, it isn't too bad. Most of this stuff is salvageable." Sally tried to find something affirmative to say. "The clothes he ripped up he probably can't wear, anyway."

Starsky sighed, sweeping fragments of plant pots and dirt into a receptacle.

"Have you called the Center yet this morning, Dave?" Sally asked, walking out to the sun porch.

"No. Haven't had the time." The curt reply left her with nothing to say.

The trio worked on in silence for a time. Finally, Huggy tried to start a conversation again.

"Starsky, quit feeling like you did something to hurt Hutch in all this. It was that idiot doctor's fault. By the way, is Dobey gonna have the bastard fired?"

Starsky shrugged. "It's not up to Dobey. Besides, in many ways, the guy was right. Hutch isn't ready to go back to work."

"But you think someday -- ?" Sally tried to inject a note of hopefulness.

"I don't know. I don't even know if it's worth thinking about." Out of the corner of his eyes, Starsky saw Huggy exchange a glance with Sally. "Look, you two, stop trying to cheer me up. I'm not taking the blame for what happened here. He did it all himself. I don't think he cares whether anything can be saved or not. He made that pretty clear last night -- he was trying to destroy all his ties to the past. Maybe if he can at least succeed at that..." His words petered out. "I'm just beat, okay? I don't really feel like discussing it."

After that, Sally and Huggy left him alone.

********

Hutch came back to his apartment the following day. He was quiet, sullen, taciturn. He'd refused to go to therapy, wouldn't even talk to Dr. Williamson. And it seemed he wasn't in the mood to talk to Starsky, either. Christopher came over and Hutch virtually ignored him, too. Starsky left for work feeling morose.

That evening, Dobey followed in his own car, stopping by Hutch's place to try to talk to him. Hutch was sitting on the sun porch bench, temporarily in use in the living room since the couch cushions weren't repaired yet. He barely looked up when Starsky and his old captain entered the room.

"Hutch," the big man said, pulling a chair over to sit near him, "Dr. Zephram was out of line. He didn't understand what you mean to the department. If you'd only told us you were planning on coming downtown, things wouldn't have gone so badly." He paused, glancing up at Starsky when Hutch made no answer. "Listen, son, you take a few days to get yourself together, and then we'll meet with the review board. You'll have a job with us as long as you want it."

Hutch closed his eyes for a long moment, then replied in a soft, defeated voice. "No. I don't want to come back. There's no point to it."

"Hutch..." There didn't seem to be anything more Dobey could say. "You think it over. In time you may change your mind. The doctors think you're going to continue to improve..." Hutch turned away from the earnest words. Finally, Dobey sighed and stood. "I think I may as well head home."

Starsky lifted his eyebrows in an expression of apology. "Thanks, Cap." A beefy hand on his shoulder did nothing to lift his own sagging spirits. He watched Dobey leave, then turned to Hutch. "I stopped by the grocery store yesterday. Want to help me fix dinner?"

Hutch slowly turned to look up at him. "I can do it myself."

"Okay. You fix dinner. I'll see if I can find two plates for us to eat off of."

"I meant it, Starsky, leave me alone. Please, just leave me alone." The blue eyes burned with an unbelievable torment.

"No," Starsky told him, his voice leaden. "I can't do that. You can tell me to get lost all you want, but I ain't goin' nowhere. Now, you wanna have something to eat, or not?"

********

They settled into a routine. Hutch refused to have Christopher come over to take care of him any longer. He seemed to put up with Starsky's presence, and his help, but didn't respond to any overtures of camaraderie. Without bullying, he wouldn't eat, wouldn't clean up. Starsky spent his evenings at Venice Place, trying to encourage Hutch to at least watch television, to see what was going on in the world, but he doubted the man paid much attention, even when he stared directly at the set. During the day, Hutch was on his own. When Starsky phoned him, he seldom answered -- most of the time he was out of the house, wandering the beach. He got up in the morning, pulled on an old pair of jeans and a wrinkled t-shirt, and drifted aimlessly around the neighborhood, not bothering to eat breakfast or lunch. His appetite was poor; even the dinners Starsky prepared didn't interest him. The weight he'd regained since returning from Australia seemed to be melting off him again. There were other losses, too. The setback seemed to have deteriorated the mental and emotional strides he'd made. He seemed to understand fewer complicated words and phrases, and used mainly simpler language himself. His reasoning powers were nil -- without guidance he frequently hurt himself, not realizing the consequences of his actions. Yet he didn't seem to mind the bruises and minor cuts. He simply existed. He didn't care about his appearance, he only combed his hair and shaved at Starsky's insistence. He grew back his moustache, and Starsky recognized the burned-out look around the shadowed eyes. The sense of giving up clung to him like a nimbus cloud.

Starsky felt their relationship eroding, turning from a friendship to that of guardian and ward. He didn't like it, and he knew Hutch didn't either, but both of them were locked into their private cells of despair, and there was no avenue of escape.

********

Hutch meandered along the beach, kicking broken seashells out of his path. He had grown used to the stares of people he passed, and realized they took him to be a bum. He didn't care what they thought. The muttered words of disdain that occasionally wafted his way were no different from the jibes that haunted his memory: geek, retard, reading on less than a sixth grade level, job as a glorified janitor. He didn't want those terms of description to fit him, but he didn't know how to change. As hard as he had worked, all of his efforts had made no difference.

Hutch knew that in another lifetime, he wouldn't have gone down without fighting. He had always thought of himself as a survivor. Even in his blackest moments, when it seemed that being a cop meant only staying one jump ahead of the bad guys, that the world could corrupt even the strongest of men, he hadn't lain down like this. Yet now, he refused to give himself pep talks, refused to heed the ones Starsky continually badgered him with. Two years of his life had been stolen, and along with them a good deal of his personal sense of identity had been drained away as well.

Why does Starsky hang around? Doesn't he see, doesn't he understand? I'm nothing. What does he want from me? The answer seemed obvious. He wants what he remembers -- a friend, a partner. He's trying to bring back something I used to be -- something that just doesn't exist anymore.

He caught the sound of children's laughter, turned to watch a couple of kids chasing a ball into the surf. Turning his head to see where they'd come from, he saw their parents fondly watching. He should have a wife, kids of his own. He should let go of me and get on with his life. Yet Hutch knew on an instinctive level that that would never happen. I'm all he has.

He mulled that thought over as he continued to walk, finally coming up to the sidewalk in search of a place to buy a Coke. As he stood in line at a soft drink stand, he caught sight of his reflection in the smoked glass of the window.

I look like hell. How can he put up with me? Maybe... maybe I should go in and clean up -- he'll be coming over later... Forgetting the drink he'd intended to purchase, Hutch headed back in the direction of Venice Place.

********

As he pushed open the unlocked door of his apartment, the phone began ringing. This time, he felt like answering it. Might be Starsky. He settled on the couch and lifted the receiver. "Hello?"

"Ken? Is that you?"

"Hello?" The voice on the phone confused him.

"Ken -- this is your Aunt Priscilla. In Minnesota."

"Oh." He dredged up her face from his faulty memory.

"How are you, dear? You sound tired."

"I'm all right." He belatedly remembered his manners. "How are you? I got your Christmas card."

"I'm fine. My arthritis kicks up every now and then. I was thinking -- would you like to come and visit me?"

Hutch didn't know how to answer that.

"Perhaps it would do you good. You're so alone there in Los Angeles. Wouldn't you like to visit with your relatives?"

"Uh... why?"

"Because we're your family. None of us have seen you in all this time. Don't you miss us? Wouldn't..." she hesitated for the first time, "wouldn't you like to know about how your mother and father died?"

"How they... died?" Hutch felt faint at heart at those words; he'd done all he could to blot their deaths from his mind.

Priscilla Hutchinson sighed. "I'm sorry, Ken. I don't wish to upset you. But the family is concerned. As the only son, you do have an inheritance, you know. The lawyers called me again the other day. So many things cannot be settled without us seeing you."

"I don't understand." He was truly confused; many of the words she was using made no sense at all to him.

"There are the other relatives -- I'm your father's sister, you know. There is a question about how much the other relatives and I will inherit, and that can't be determined until we talk to you... how are you doing, dear? Are you... back to normal?"

He didn't understand, but instinctively felt there was something he shouldn't trust in his aunt's conversation. "I'm okay. I don't know when I can visit you. This is my home now."

"Shall I have the family lawyers write to you?"

"Okay."

"Good. We're all so concerned about your health, Ken. You really should let us hear from you."

"Sure." Nervous, Hutch only wanted to end the conversation. "Goodbye."

"Goodbye, dear."

He put down the phone, dismissing the call from his mind.

Hutch sat for a few moments, trying to get back to the line of thought he'd been following before the phone call. At last it came to him. I was thinking about Starsky... getting cleaned up before he gets here. He rose, heading for the bathroom.

After showering, Hutch put on a cleaner pair of jeans and a fresh shirt, then went to sit on the couch to wait for Starsky. For the first time in several weeks, he found himself anxious to see him. Even if he bitches at me again tonight, it's lonely without him.

The lock rattled suddenly, alerting him to the arrival of his friend. Starsky had had his own key to the place for a long time, but he made use of it these days more often than he had been. He swung the door open and strolled into the room.

"Hey, there you are," he said, sounding somewhat surprised. "I thought I might have to go down to the beach looking for you again."

"I came back earlier," Hutch told him. He cast about for a remark that would welcome Starsky, yet small talk eluded him. "What time is it?"

"Almost six." Starsky kept his eyes on him for a moment longer, then brusquely slipped out of his jacket and holster. "You feel like eating tonight?" That question came with a long-suffering note to it, as though he wasn't expecting an affirmative answer.

"Sure. What're we having?" Hutch watched for a change in Starsky's expression.

The smile was brief and tentative. "I think there's some of that baked chicken left."

"Good." Hutch levered himself off the couch. "Can I help?"

Starsky's smile broadened a little. "Okay."

They puttered around in the kitchen together, not saying much, and Hutch felt the discomfort at having to live this way keenly. He arranged the table while Starsky stirred what was on the stove -- burning his fingers a lot lately, he'd begun to shy away from the appliance. Finally they sat down to the meal, and Hutch tried to muster the appetite he'd claimed to have. Starsky hadn't noticed he'd cleaned up and now he wasn't sure why he was bothering to make an effort.

"What did you do today?" the dark-haired man asked.

"Walked along the beach," Hutch answered him with a sigh. "Not much. I got to thinking..." He let the sentence trail off without finishing it. Though the abstract thoughts from that afternoon had seemed clear to him at the time, expressing them now was more difficult. "I was thinking about you."

"Yeah? What about me?" Starsky was busy scooping vegetables onto his fork.

"Lately... you've been getting mad at me... because I'm so slow..." That wasn't really what Hutch intended to say, but once the words were out, he couldn't clarify them.

"I'm not mad at you -- and you're not slow. You just seem like you've given up. No therapy, no more exercising... Hutch, all the gains you made are just slipping away."

"I can't go back. I tried to say so."

"Healing takes a long time -- "

"And sometimes it never happens. Why can't you accept it, Starsky? I'm not the man I once was and I never will be again." Talking about it, the defeat came creeping back up on him, sapping his will. "I'm dumb. It's hard to remember things, to figure things out. I'm... no use to anybody."

The fork held in the slender hand was laid gently on the table, as though Starsky were gathering precious strength to hold onto his emotions. "You're not dumb. And you're not useless. To me, you're..."

"I know. But not to myself."

They sat there for a long moment, looking at each other, all the unfinished feelings between them chilling in the empty air. Are you as lonely for me as I am for you? Hutch thought, longing for time to bend back upon itself and carry them to a place he remembered as being so warm, so comfortable, where they had been so very close.

Finally, Starsky drew in a breath, shoulders lifting with the effort. "I don't know what to say to you anymore, Hutch. I don't know how to help you."

Hutch couldn't maintain the eye contact. "It's not your fault."

"It's nobody's fault. We shouldn't blame ourselves." He leaned closer and Hutch felt his gaze being pulled back to him again. "Look, I'm not tryin' to make you into something perfect. I don't want to set you up for failure. I just want you to feel good about yourself. And you know that lately you haven't."

Hutch simply nodded.

"I just want you to try. Do you think you can put some effort in again? Why don't you go back to the Center and have some more therapy? You should talk to Dr. Williamson, too."

"I don't know. It didn't... do any good before."

"Sure it did. You just don't believe it because of what happened down at Metro. It was too soon, Hutch. You weren't ready to go back to doin' a job. That bastard Zephram hurt you by the way he said it, and you've lost sight of what was really going on. You just have some more work to do. I -- " he broke off, looking away. "I just can't stand to see you losing everything you worked to get back..." He choked the words off, sounding strangely as if he were trying to fight back tears.

Hutch couldn't stand to see him hurting -- to know that he was the cause of the pain. He took a deep breath and spoke softly. "I came home and cleaned up before you got here."

For a long moment, it seemed that Starsky wasn't going to respond. Finally, his gaze slowly returned to Hutch. "I noticed. You put on some clean clothes."

Hutch smiled at the approval, then remembered something else that had happened. "I got a phone call."

"Yeah? From who?"

"My Aunt Priscilla. In Minnesota. She said come visit."

"Would you like to do that?"

"Sure. I haven't been home... in a long time. Can we go?"

"Well, maybe sometime. Don't you think you should get back to feeling better first?"

Hutch glanced down at his unfinished dinner. "I guess so."

"Okay. How about this? You do some more work at the Center, and then when I can get the time off, I'll take you."

"Alright."

"You'll go back for more therapy?"

Hutch met his eyes. "All right."

Starsky gave him the first genuine smile since he'd arrived. "That's good. You'll be happier, Hutch, I know it."

They continued the meal, both of them feeling better.

"Did your aunt say anything else?" Starsky asked after a few minutes.

Hutch thought back to the conversation; most of it had been over his head anyway. "She talked about... lawyers, I think."

"Lawyers?" Starsky looked puzzled, too. "Maybe about your parents' wills."

"What?"

"You know -- their wills, what they left behind when they died. I remember now, when they died you were still missing. And there was a lot of fighting among the other relatives about what to do with the money. They thought they should get it, which they would have if you'd been dead." His eyes narrowed as he reasoned it through. "But now you're back. They must be wondering what kind of shape you're in. Hutch, if you're not capable of handling the inheritance, they might try to take it away from you. They might try to contest your parents' will."

"I don't understand."

"Just understand this much. It's more important than ever for you to go back to therapy. Your parents left you a good deal of money, and you're going to be needing it in the future. We may have to prove you're competent -- that you can live on your own and take care of all that money -- in order to make sure you can keep it."

The conviction in Starsky's eyes was persuasion enough. "Okay, Starsk. I'll go back. I'll work hard."

********

Gradually, the despair that had seemed to follow Hutch around began to lift. Starsky noted little things at first, like his taking greater interest in his appearance and a desire to help with daily chores, and they heartened him. But things had changed. If the first few months of Hutch's rehabilitation had seemed like the early enthusiastic days of their time on the force, the atmosphere now provoked memories of the burned-out Hutch who had worked alongside him in the last year of their partnership. When he worked now, it was a sense of dogged determination that pushed him to continue, not the zeal for the work alone.

Starsky himself felt he was continuing the way he was through sheer obstinacy, too. It bothered him sometimes -- no, all the time -- but he didn't know how to change. I'm hanging on, doing the only thing I know how to do... exist with him, for him, because of him. What keeps us tied together? Memories? Is that enough? I don't think either one of us has the same hopes for the future that we once dreamed about, not even about working together again. Then what is it? Simple obligation? No, not simple. Anything but simple. It's the most complicated form of obligation that exists. And it hurts, having to prod and poke and nag him, to look out for him instead of just being with him and enjoying him, but it's all we've got, either of us. So obligation will have to do.

There were times when a certain light would shine in Hutch's eyes, when the spark seemed to come alive between them again. Starsky tried in vain to capture those moments, to make them last. But the magic would be gone again in a flash, leaving him to wonder if he had imagined it all.

Sometimes, he wasn't sure the Hutch he remembered still existed at all. He was so changed, so tentative sometimes. The strong, decisive, tender person he used to be seemed tragically lost. But he was no child; this was a man in search of himself, a man needing to find a new way to live with his limitations. There were times that the Hutch of old was still recognizable; he was still a man capable of impatience, sudden anger, frustrating pigheadedness. As annoying as those attributes could be, Starsky half-welcomed them -- it made him feel his familiar Hutch was back. And the tenderness of his touch, of his smile, would return fleetingly, too, making Starsky long for sweeter times of shared laughter, shared comfort. Those little moments seemed like torments to his hungry soul, promising an end to the dry perseverance that marked their life together now.

The harder he fought to keep his place in Hutch's life, the harder Hutch fought to pull away. He doesn't want to need me, that's obvious. And a part of Starsky understood; Hutch simply longed for independence. Yet Starsky could not forget the terrible truth that had been uttered in the ruined apartment that day, Hutch telling him he wanted nothing of his past around to remind him. He puts up with me... for now... because he does need me. But someday, he won't anymore... or he'll run away, cut himself off from my help before he's truly ready. What'll happen to us both then? I don't know...