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Distant Shores

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CHAPTER II

 

Hutch wandered the halls of the Rehab Center, feeling out of step with the people existing there. His therapy session was over for the day, but because he had gotten the time confused, he was left waiting for his ride home. Christopher had not been rehired, since he no longer really needed nursing-type care. Now he usually caught a ride on the van that picked up other patients who lived in L.A. and came out to the Center for their therapy. He looked at the patients pushing themselves in wheelchairs and using walkers, and was glad he had progressed to the point where he no longer needed such devices. He watched their expressions, and wondered if their minds would ever come out of the cold wilderness it appeared they had gone into. Is my mind coming out? Sometimes, he felt it might be; other times, he wasn't sure if it ever would.

Arriving at a room he'd seldom been in, Hutch pushed open the door and stood looking around. It was the library, filled with row upon row of books and magazines, wide oak tables and only a few people sitting and reading. Hutch realized it had been a very long time since he'd picked up a novel to read for enjoyment. He wasn't sure he could do such a thing now.

A young man looked up from the book he was reading, nodding at Hutch as the blond moved to explore the stacks of books. Hutch recognized him; he'd seen him in the therapy rooms and halls from time to time, but they'd never spoken. Hutch thought he was younger than he was by a few years. He was tall with a thick mane of long, dark hair and a pair of careless brown eyes. Now, seeing him here, Hutch wondered why he was at the Center. He certainly didn't look like the other patients shuffling along the halls.

It had been a long time since Hutch had struck up a casual conversation with a stranger. He hardly knew how to begin. Still, his curiosity was strong, pushing him to attempt social moves he hadn't thought he remembered. He walked over to the table where the younger man sat, pulled out a chair and sat down. The receptive brown eyes looked toward him and the smile he offered looked genuine.

"Hi," Hutch began, having to clear his throat before he spoke the word clearly.

"Hi," the other man grinned. "I've seen you around. What's your name?"

"Hutch... Ken Hutchinson." Hutch felt color rising in his cheeks as he sought the next item on the agenda. "Who are you?"

The long line of a dark eyebrow rose. "I'm Ted Fletcher." He put out a hand. "Good to know you, Ken."

After a second's hesitation, Hutch shook the offered hand. "Do you work here?" he asked the young man then.

Ted just laughed. "No. I don't even live here anymore. I'm an outpatient -- just like you."

Hutch reacted with surprise. "Really? You... you don't look sick."

"Thanks." He went back to the magazine he was reading.

Hutch cast about for something more to say. "I... I was in a coma. For two years. I'm still having therapy." It was the first time he'd ever told any stranger; it felt like realizing you were in school naked.

Ted nodded sagely. "I know what you mean. Heads never recover."

"What? I don't understand."

"Heads -- you know, head injury cases. They never totally recover."

Hutch drew back, fearing the direction the conversation was going in. Something twisted inside him, sensing the absolute truth of what Ted stated, yet he felt a need to deny. "How do you know so much about it?"

Ted closed the book and looked directly at him. "'Cause I'm one, too. I had my accident three years ago. That's how I know heads never recover."

Hutch was shocked. He'd seen the way Ted walked, there seemed to be nothing wrong with his gait. And verbally, he was so much smoother in conversation that so many of the patients. How could he paint such a bleak picture of recovery if he was doing so well? "But you... you don't seem like there's much wrong with you."

"Right." Ted smiled again and tapped his temple with his index finger. "You learn to make adjustments, to compensate for what doesn't come back. People don't know you're doing it, but you have to. I use whatever tricks I can, making notes of what I've done today, memory devices, rules of logic -- whatever it takes to get along."

Hutch's mind was reeling. "What happened to you?"

"It was a car accident. I hit the dashboard. I was unconscious for six weeks. My parents didn't think I would ever come out of it. Then, when I did, they thought I'd never walk or talk again."

"Wow." Hutch was impressed. Seeing Ted was doing more for him than all the talks with Dr. Williamson. There really was hope for him. "Can you..." he faltered, not knowing how to put his feelings into words, "can you show me how you do it? I mean, most of the time I walk around feeling sort of lost, not knowing who I am anymore, how to do things..." He realized he was babbling, but the floodgates to his feelings had been opened. Here was a kindred soul, a person who'd experienced a similar loss of self and knowledge, and he wanted to ask him about everything. At last, someone else understood, someone else had been there, too.

And though he had said flat out that there was no absolute recovery, the very fact that they were talking about it proved it was possible to cope. "I mean... could we talk sometimes, Ted? Nobody else really knows what I'm going through..."

"Sure." The brown eyes that seemed so assured crinkled at their corners when he smiled.

For the next two hours, the stream of conversation between Ted and Hutch was constant. They discussed not only some of the devices Ted used to compensate for his deficits, but how it felt to wake up different than you'd been when you lost consciousness. Hutch learned that all had not gone smoothly for Ted. Though he'd been living on his own at the time of the accident, twenty-four-year-old Ted had had to move back in with his parents when he came out of the hospital. That loss of independence still rankled, but he admitted that it was good not to have to do everything alone. The girlfriend to whom he'd been engaged had hung around until he woke up, but it had taken Ted a year to remember that they had been in love and planning to marry. Eventually, she just couldn't take it anymore and left.

He spoke of that loss with little emotion; there was regret, but it had been inevitable. Ted wasn't the same man she'd fallen in love with, not the same man who had needed that girl. "I felt bad, but when I remembered that we'd been engaged, I didn't know what to say to her. At the time, I knew I wasn't ready to get married." Ted shrugged, then looked a question at Hutch. "You got a girlfriend?"

Hutch shook his head. "Nobody's hanging around, at least. Is that how it was for you -- you remembered some things but not others? I remember lots about being a cop, but other stuff just sort of fades in and out."

"Do you remember getting hurt?"

"Not all of it. There are a lot of vague dreams... but I don't try to piece them all together."

"You should. When that big gap of what happened was solved for me, I felt like I could handle so much more."

Hutch thought that over. "Makes sense." He grinned a little, self-deprecatingly. "Listen to me. I'm no judge of what makes sense or doesn't."

"That's one thing that's gotta stop right now," Ted told him sternly. "You've got plenty of brains. Just because you're a little rusty doesn't mean you're retarded or something now. Has somebody been calling you dumb or anything?"

"No. Just myself," Hutch admitted, a little uncomfortable, but he felt at ease talking about even that with Ted.

"Is that the way you always were -- judging yourself so tough?"

Hutch had to smile. "I'm not sure. I think so. Hey, wonder how come someone's bad qualities always are the ones to come back, instead of all the best ones?"

"Who's to say? Some people change personality completely, I've heard. Some turn into complete bitches. They tell me I'm lots easier going."

"You're nice, Ted. Thanks for talking to me," Hutch said earnestly.

Ted checked his watch, then pulled out a small notebook. "I've gotta get going. My ride's here by now, I bet." He saw Hutch watching him. "You should use a notebook like this. Mark down everything -- even that you've had lunch."

"Ginny tells me to, but I've never started."

"Well, we gotta do whatever works. And like I said, read as much as you can. Kid's books that explain scientific things -- they helped me a lot. And if you feel like there was so much you missed being out so long, look up old magazines. Then you can find out what happened while you were... gone."

Hutch nodded, getting out his own pocket watch. The increased confidence he'd acquired through the conversation with Ted helped him figure out the time more quickly. "My ride will here in an hour," he said, standing. He shook hands with Ted. "Are you sure it's okay if I call you on the phone?"

"Put my number in your book as soon as you get home," Ted advised, patting the pocket on Hutch's shirt where the folded slip of paper was tucked away. Nodding, smiling again, he turned to leave the library. Hutch watched him go, then turned to explore the stacks of books on his own.

********

Hutch kept silent about the new friend he'd made. Though he'd almost told Starsky the very day he met Ted, he decided to hold back. He realized that there wasn't anything Starsky didn't know about his life, and something inside him needed to retain the semblance of privacy about this one facet of his existence. He felt the pull of Starsky at all times. Even though he had gone back to therapy, Starsky seemed to be pushing at him to work harder, quizzing him about what progress he'd made. Part of it was genuine interest, and Hutch knew that he grew to resent the feeling that Starsky was his guardian, his caretaker. He wanted so much to be his own man again.

He had tried to figure out why Starsky couldn't seem to let go. Despite the progress Hutch was making, Starsky still treated him like a forgetful kid. He keeps bossing me around, telling me when to do everything, how to do everything. I'm not his child -- I used to be his friend, his partner. As a result, Hutch felt rebellious. He'd stubbornly do things exactly opposite from the way Starsky recommended, taking pleasure in seeing Starsky get mad.

There had been so many arguments lately, most recently over Hutch's mail.

Starsky came in the way he usually did, unlocking the door and making himself at home. Hutch had been reading on the sun porch; he closed his book and came into the living room. There, Starsky was sorting through a pile of mail on the desk.

"You don't have to do that," he told Starsky defensively. "I had it in separate piles."

"Then what's this letter from your family's lawyer doing in with the bills?"

Hutch shrugged. "I don't know. Guess it got mixed in." He came over and took the letter in question from Starsky's hand. "He keeps saying I have to go to Duluth, Starsky. When...?"

"I'm right in the middle of a big case, Hutch. Dobey just can't let me have any more time off. You keep forgetting, I took a four-month vacation last year."

The tone he said it in bothered Hutch. Starsky sounded exasperated, as if he were patiently repeating what ought to be obvious. "Right," he said, a little acidly, "and that was my fault, too."

"I didn't mean it like that," Starsky said immediately, but the aggravation was still in his voice.

Hutch sighed. "I told you I was going to pay the bills myself this month."

"Hutch, why don't you just let me take care of these -- I've been doing it so long I know when they're all due. And I don't mind, really."

"Well, I mind." He snatched the rest of the mail from Starsky's grasp. "I don't like somebody knowing all my business." He knew he sounded petulant, but he didn't care.

"It didn't bother you until just recently. What do you think I'm doing, keeping part of your money for myself?"

"No, of course not. It's just... why can't you let me take care of things myself?"

"I'll tell you why -- " Starsky grabbed the envelopes back from him. "Because you're bound to screw things up if you try to handle it all on your own!"

"So what? It's my life, let me screw it up for myself!"

"You know what? That's just exactly what I oughta do! You're so damned pig-headed... you figure one day you want to pay your bills, so you just will. Well, I've heard this before, buddy. You know what's gonna happen? It's gonna get too complicated, or you'll forget something or get yourself overdrawn, and then you'll have to let me help. Why don't you just let me take care of it to begin with and save us both a lot of trouble?" Starsky's eyes had narrowed, his jaw tight with anger.

Trouble? Is that all I am to you now? Hutch's heart twisted in pain, but all he could do was lash out and inflict his feelings on Starsky. "Terrific. Way to be supportive, buddy. Why don't you just have me committed? Aren't you the one who said it was important to prove to the family lawyers that I'm capable of handling the inheritance? How do you expect me to learn unless you let me try?"

"You don't want to learn! You think you can just do it without any practice," Starsky snarled.

"You don't even have the patience to teach me!" Hutch glared at him, daring him to deny the accusation.

"Come off it, Hutch. I'm too tired to put up with your tantrums tonight."

"Then why don't you just go home? Leave me alone!"

Starsky turned, looking at him for a long, silent moment. Then he dropped the mail back on the desk, turned, and without a word, strode to the door and walked through it. He didn't bother closing the door.

Hutch stood rooted where he was, breathing harsh in his chest. A big part of him wanted to rush to the landing and call Starsky's name. He knew he'd hurt the man this time. But I'm hurt, too... What in hell are we gonna do, Starsk? Why can't we talk anymore?

He heard the sound of Starsky's Camaro starting up, and waited until the noise of the engine died away. Then he very quietly closed the door to his apartment. The silence seemed too vast to contain the feelings throbbing within his heart. He couldn't stand Starsky being around, yet when alone, he missed him terribly. I don't really want to be without you... but why don't you understand me anymore? Why don't I understand you? He sighed, leaning his forehead against the door. It didn't matter, the argument would be forgotten by tomorrow, he knew. Starsky would be back. But we'll probably have another one before the day is out... Damn it, Starsk, what's happening to us?

********

May, 1982

It was a quiet evening. Starsky and Hutch had finished dinner and were sitting on the sundeck. There wasn't much conversation; they'd both grown tired of pretending. It was easier if they didn't force what wasn't there, so they just sat, quiet in their individual pursuits. Starsky was scanning the evening paper, occasionally muttering about the press coverage of one of his recent cases. Hutch was practicing some math from a high school text he'd checked out of the library, hoping vaguely that if his skills were good enough, he might be able to prove he could handle his inheritance. The sun was low in the sky, but bright enough to hurt the eyes if it were stared at too intently. Hutch glanced up, watching the way the light glossed the silky curls over Starsky's forehead. He wished he knew how to tell him he looked good that way.

Starsky looked up suddenly, as if realizing he was being watched. He gave a sort of nostalgic half-smile, then cleared his throat rather noisily. "You want to go out for some ice cream?"

The request sounded strange; they so rarely went out without a specific destination in mind. Hutch found he did want some ice cream; he nodded enthusiastically. In moments, they were out in Starsky's car.

Hutch rolled down the window, letting his hair blow in the breeze. The early evening air was just cool enough. Starsky had slipped on a pair of sunglasses to fight the glare. Hutch sat back in the seat, enjoying the way his hands moved on the steering wheel, the way his eyes lingered over the road, then glanced in the mirrors. Starsky was in complete control, and Hutch felt at ease. The only dissonance was knowing he had no such control over his own environment. He wasn't the one behind the wheel and it was hard to remember the last time he'd driven a car, impossible to imagine a time when he would again. But tonight he felt no resentment toward Starsky. He was, after all, the only one Hutch didn't mind being vulnerable in front of. There were times when I took care of him... times when we were equal. It's all upside down now.

The radio squawked to life and Starsky leaned forward to adjust the controls, keeping his eyes on the road.

"All units, there is a suspect heading north on Figueroa in a brown '81 Ford. Suspect is considered armed and dangerous. He is wanted in connection with the 2-11 at the Metropolitan Bank this afternoon. Zebra 14 is in pursuit and requests back-up."

"That's only a block from here," Starsky announced tersely, switching on his turn signal.

"We're gonna go after him?" Hutch asked, a little thrill of anticipation skidding down his spine.

"Sure." Starsky's eyes glanced toward him. "Like old times?"

Hutch tightened his seatbelt.

They swung onto Figueroa and spotted the brown Ford a couple of car lengths ahead. The driver, obviously in a hurry, was tailgating the car in front of him. Starsky reached for the mike.

"I have the vehicle in sight."

There was a moment of cross-talk, and Zebra 14 indicated they were backing off, allowing Starsky's unmarked car to pick up the suspect. They established a two-car tail, following for several blocks. Then the Ford pulled into a just-vacated parking space in front of an office building. Starsky and Hutch watched from their vantage point, back half a block.

"He's gettin' out," Starsky mused. "Wonder if he's made us?"

Hutch sat staring as the man climbed out of his automobile and walked nonchalantly toward the revolving door of the building. A sudden flash of something, perhaps a sense of deja vu, jogged a cloudy area of his brain. He sat forward suddenly, senses on alert. "Eddie Strouse."

Starsky leaned toward him, eyes still on the suspect. "What did you say?"

"Eddie Strouse. He got out of his car and went into the building." Hutch was in the process of memorizing the suspect's clothes. "He's gonna cut through to the side street entrance." He threw a look at Starsky. "I'll follow him through the building. You swing around to the side entrance and pick him up again."

He unlocked the car door and slipped out before Starsky could utter a word.

********

Shocked, Starsky watched him go, dumbfounded. He couldn't argue with Hutch's assessment of the situation. For a second or two, he nearly forgot all about the suspect and dashed off after him. As he pulled into traffic again, what his friend had said reverberated in his mind. "Eddie Strouse." Starsky knew that name, it was seared into his soul. Eddie Strouse was the man Kurt Flavin had waited for before leaving for Australia. Eddie Strouse must have been the man Hutch followed that day... The man who made him... and then kidnapped him... Starsky forced himself to concentrate on the immediate situation, though his brain wanted to ponder the events of the past. He wasn't sure whether Hutch thought this present suspect was Eddie Strouse, or if his actions simply reminded him of that day so long ago. I don't know whether I'll want to slug him or hug him when I get hold of him again.

********

Hutch moved swiftly through the lobby area of the large building, paying no attention to the people he passed. His gaze was fastened on the figure he was following. Can't let him see me... For some undefined reason, this thought was paramount. He didn't question, didn't second-guess himself. He was following a quarry and he dared not let it get away.

The tall subject, dressed in dark pants and a baggy windbreaker, hesitated at the elevators, pressing a button. Hutch hung back as the elevator doors opened, trying to keep his eye on his man. A large group of people got off the elevator, but Hutch saw that his suspect did not get on. He's tryin' to fool me! Grim satisfaction pulsed through Hutch as he saw the man work his way through the crowd and head toward the side of the lobby.

His heart beat faster as he got closer to the suspect. A buzzing sound seemed to drown out the sounds of footsteps and voices, and the cars on the street outside. A subtle fear began slipping through Hutch's veins, but he couldn't tell where it was coming from. It wasn't the familiar twinge of strength adrenalin provided. Instead, it was the very real consciousness that something was about to go totally, irrevocably wrong.

Nothing's going wrong, he tried to tell himself firmly, Starsky's out there. Then why do I feel this way?

Bright light from the low-hanging sun streaked the black-tiled floor as he came closer to the outside doors of the building. His quarry was moving faster and Hutch knew he'd have to speed up to keep him in sight.

He brushed past a middle-aged woman, nearly knocking the packages from her arms. He didn't say a word, however, he couldn't let himself be distracted from his job.

Suddenly, with no warning, the man pulled up short. He reached into his jacket, turning in the same, swift motion. Hutch glimpsed the dark object in his hand as the man's eyes fastened on his.

"Everybody get down!" Hutch shouted at full volume. His own right hand reached under his jacket without conscious thought, yet there was nothing there to fill his grip.

The man had seen his gesture. He turned sharply again and made for the door. Hutch rushed him, grabbing him around the upper body, pinning the arms at his sides. I'm alone this time... gotta do it all...

The heavier man's momentum carried them through the doors. Hutch hung on, though an iron hard grip tried to dislodge his hands. His mind exploded in panic, instinct vying with a terrible need. Can't let go... for Starsky's sake... A brutally hard blow to his wrists weakened his grasp, and then his right leg buckled. The concrete came up to meet his cheek.

In the distance, a police siren was wailing. Shots were fired, and Hutch pushed up from his fallen position, seeking their source. His eyes fastened on Starsky, under cover of the front fender of the Camaro, firing. Two feet ahead of Hutch, the suspect crumpled and fell. More sirens followed, cops and other people crowded around. Running feet hurried toward his position on the sidewalk, but he kept his eyes down, didn't look to see who it might be.

Hutch flinched as terror blotted out his understanding of reality. "You lost this time, cop. It's all over." More running footsteps, shrill curses, shouted commands. "Hold him down -- get his arm ready..." He doubled over, trying to make himself invisible.

Hands took a painful grip on his shoulders. He moaned, pulling away. The words, "Babe, it's me," came at him from a vast distance, and he curled into a tighter ball.

"Lieutenant, can you come here?" another voice, harsh baritone of a young man. The presence at his side slipped away. With it, some of the panic lifted and Hutch eased from his crouched position.

He knelt on the sidewalk, watching the action around him. Starsky was in the center of the disturbance, taking charge, giving orders, helping to calm the anxious bystanders. That, in turn, calmed Hutch somewhat. Starsky motioned to the ambulance that was pulling up, directing uniformed cops, yet it was obvious to Hutch's practiced eye that a part of his attention was still on the writhing suspect. That man was groaning loudly, but Hutch couldn't see much blood, except for a splash on the knee of his pants.

The man was slowly moving to a crouched position, protectively curled on his stomach. Yet his hands were moving. One of them, the right, reached carefully for the gun under his hip.

"STARSKY!" Just as Hutch shouted, his friend turned sharply, bringing his Beretta to bear on the man. The big gun fired, the sound exploding in Hutch's ears and the suspect fell loose-limbed on the street again. Hutch closed his eyes, and shuddered.

********

It took about ten minutes at the scene to wrap up the details. Starsky was kept busy, but tried to maintain a watch on Hutch, who hadn't moved from his crouch on the ground since he'd shouted his warning. Every instinct in the police lieutenant's heart demanded he go to his partner, but as ranking officer, he had duties to perform. If Hutch wasn't injured, he would have to wait until Starsky could spare him the attention he needed.

It seemed as though Hutch was all right. He appeared to be quietly watching Starsky work, and the fact that the blue eyes never left him brought a wave of comfort that was like warm pleasure. Finally, he was free to go to his friend.

"Hutch? You all right?" Starsky bent to meet the wide blue eyes. They seemed unfocused now, shadowed with hurt and fear. He reached out with a careful hand, touching the broad back.

Hutch flinched, eyes roaming the scene. They finally fastened on Starsky's face. "I'm... sorry..."

"What for?" Starsky managed to say it with a smile. "You did everything right, partner."

Hutch appeared confused. "I... I made a mistake... forgot... I was working alone..." The words stopped, and his hands came up to rub at his eyes.

Starsky tensed, not sure he understood what Hutch was mumbling about. He seemed to have lost touch with where he was and what was really going on. Starsky shifted position, moving still closer, and took firmer hold of him. "Hey, look at me, hmm? You know where you are, Hutch?"

A groan was the only reply for a moment. Hutch shuddered, as if a great wave of torment were passing through him. "I forgot... what I was tryin' to do..."

 

"Hey, for a guy who's been off the streets as long as you, I think you did pretty well." Starsky kept watch on the vague eyes; it didn't seem Hutch could follow the conversation.

"But... they got my gun... No! I don't want... damn! Starsk! Help!" He flinched away, but lacked the coordination to pull himself to his feet. Starsky was certain that if he had the strength, he'd have been up and running in a second.

Shaken, he got a grip on him and heaved the man to his feet. Wrapping an arm over his shoulders, he led Hutch back to the car. As he eased him into the passenger seat, he saw silvery tears slide down the pale cheeks. He reached to brush them away, noting how the fair skin was scraped from his fall. Hutch's right cheek was skinned and turning purple, but he didn't seem to notice any pain. Is he remembering? Is he somehow lost between what just happened and the events of that day?

Worried, Starsky hurried to the driver's side and slid in, starting his car. He eased out into traffic and drove back to Hutch's place.

During the ride home, Hutch said not a word; he leaned against the door, arms clasped around his middle, eyes closed tight. Starsky let him be, afraid that talking might upset him even more. When they parked in front of Venice Place, he quietly told Hutch they'd arrived.

"You ready to go on up?" he asked softly.

Hutch slowly opened his eyes, looking around as if in some confusion. He peered up at the facade of the building, eyes widening in a look of surprise. "I'm home." The voice sounded wistful with surprise.

"That's right. We made it back in one piece." Starsky pulled the key out of the ignition and cut off the lights. He opened his door and noted that Hutch was unlocking his own. That made him feel better; Hutch apparently was not so out of it that he didn't know what to do next.

Nevertheless, Starsky came to the other side of the car and got an arm around him. Though Hutch had made it to a standing position without trouble, he worried about his strength still. And a part of Starsky needed the close physical contact right then.

They made their way up the steps and Starsky unlocked the door. Hutch's stamina seemed to be fading fast; he lurched to the couch and slumped down, bending to rest his head over arms folded on his knees. Starsky sat beside him, trying to cover the urgency in his heart with a softness of manner.

"You okay?" For a few seconds, there was no answer. "Hutch?" He ventured another touch, this time a gentle stroking of the bowed head. The fine, blond strands felt cool and he wished he dared to sink his fingers in their glossy mass.

"I... made a mistake, Starsk," the quiet voice croaked. Hutch raised his head to look into Starsky's eyes. "I don't know how it happened. I just... don't know..."

"What are you talking about? Do you mean what just went down tonight? Or are you talking about a long time ago?"

"Tonight?" Hutch seemed truly bewildered. He shook his head no. "I was following Eddie Strouse."

"Not tonight, Hutch. That was another guy we followed. But you thought of Eddie Strouse when you saw him, didn't you?"

A nod, and restless hands rubbed up and down the long, slender thighs. "I saw him... that day. Recognized him from that drug case a couple years back. He was selling on the street, but when I got close enough, I realized it wasn't drugs."

"What was it?" Starsky made his voice encouraging.

Hutch squinted, trying to see through a veil of memory. "Opals. Big, white... lots of colors in them..."

That figures, if he was part of a gang working out of Australia. "What did you do when you saw him?"

"He was using them to buy drugs... to set up a meet with someone else." The quavering voice steadied. "He went back to his car and I tailed him for a while. I... think he must have spotted the tail." He looked directly at Starsky.

"It's okay," Starsky soothed. "Then what happened?"

"He parked his car. Right in the shopping district. Got out before I could call it in. I had to follow him -- into a building. Like tonight." Hutch nodded, looking more certain. "I left my car... Inside, he was making a phone call. I stayed back and listened... And I heard him say something about the airport. I knew a deal was going down -- there was no time to call for back-up. I'd have lost him and I thought if he mentioned the airport, maybe he was... leaving the country." Hutch shrugged sheepishly. "He hung up the phone and I thought I'd call in when I got back to my car. But he went out on the other side of the building and jumped into a cab. I had to keep him in sight..." He looked to Starsky, reaching for his hands. "Starsk... I don't know..."

Starsky gripped chilled fingers. "Take it easy. Just tell me what happened then."

"I..." Hutch groped for words. "I couldn't get back to my car without losing him... so I hailed a cab." He paused, eyes narrowed as he searched his memory.

"Take it easy," Starsky urged. "One step at a time. What next? Do you remember?"

Hutch rubbed at his eyes again, looking confused. "Not much. The airport... another guy... Maybe two of them... No... it's gone." He glanced up. "Damn."

"It's okay. Was the other guy named Flavin?"

Hutch thought about it for a moment. "I can't remember. How would you know?"

"I found out -- finally. One of these days, I'll tell you about my investigation. What happened then -- they get you on the plane?"

"Somehow... I don't know... I can't remember anything after jumping into the cab. Maybe I got careless." The look in the blue eyes was wild with self-doubt.

"Hey, cut that out. I know you weren't being careless. Your instincts were good. A deal was going down. It was probably something big. And maybe the perps were leaving the country -- you were right about that. Something happened, and they grabbed you. Exactly how might never come back. But it's okay now."

But Hutch was still shaking his head. "No... Damn, I still can't remember. Starsk... did I... have something on my mind that day? What was goin' on?" He rubbed mercilessly at his temples.

Starsky sat frozen, not knowing what to say. He didn't want to force the memories, yet he wished so hard they would return. "You did have a few things on your mind. I... I'd just gotten out of the hospital."

Hutch turned to him in surprise. "Yeah... I drove you home... didn't I?"

"That's right. Do you remember anything else?" It was as much as Starsky dared ask.

"I... The plane taking off. They'd handcuffed me to the seat... I knew... that was gonna be it for me..." He groaned, leaning forward as if in intense pain.

"Shhh. Take it easy," Starsky told him, getting an arm around the shaking shoulders. "Listen, Hutch. Do you know what this means? You remember what happened to you." He swallowed hard. "Just about everything. That's supposed to be somethin' good, you know."

Hutch looked up, eyes wide and more aware than they'd been in months. "Starsk?"

"Yes?" It was hard for Starsky to speak around the lump that had formed in his throat.

"I... didn't mean to mess it all up so bad."

"I know." It seemed best to say no more than that. "It's okay, babe."

"I guess I just had a lot on my mind..." The gaps still bothered him.

And Starsky, too. He couldn't help thinking of the one other thing Hutch couldn't recall. Why don't I say it? Am I that much of a coward? Perhaps a touch, a caress... could I help to bring back the memories that way?

Hutch sighed then, leaning toward Starsky, coming to rest against his friend's side. "God, I'm tired..."

No, I better not push. "'Course you are. Remembering like that is pretty exhausting. And you got roughed up a little, too." Gently, Starsky touched the abraded cheek. "Hey, I forgot to thank you. The instincts are still there. You done good, partner."

A vague smile. "Yeah? So when do I get my ice cream?"

Starsky smiled from his heart. "You remember that, too, huh? Okay, how about I fix up this face o'yours and then go out and pick up a carton? What flavor you want?"

"You decide." The blond lashes fluttered once and then slipped closed. Starsky maneuvered out from under his dozing burden and got up to search the medicine cabinet for first-aid supplies. Returning with them, he stopped for a moment, loathe to disturb his friend's rest. You did have something on your mind that day, Hutch. More'n me coming home from the hospital. Were you having second thoughts; is that why it still hasn't come back to you after all this time?

Starsky tried fiercely to keep the questions from whirling through his mind. It did no good to speculate, but he still couldn't allow himself to ask Hutch anything more. Right now, his own feelings were as confused and confusing as ever. I feel like there's something I should mourn, despite the fact that he's made so much progress tonight. Yet Starsky knew he couldn't grieve for the death of love without full confirmation of its end, no more than he could have given into grief for Hutch without knowing for sure that he was dead.

He sat near him on the couch, just watching him slumber for a while. At length, Hutch stirred, lids fluttering open. For a moment, he linked gazes with Starsky. Neither man spoke a word, neither of them quite breathed. Hutch's eyes held... something. Starsky thought surely his heart's beating could be heard. You're here, it's really you! Hutch, you have come home...

The tense shivering of his emotions rose to a crescendo. He watched Hutch's eyes, convinced the words were about to be spoken, pleading silently for the moment to hold. Hutch was looking at him with such certitude on his face. All you have to do is lean forward... and kiss me. Starsky waited, his quivering hope like a flame. The moment drew out, then something bright faded from Hutch's eyes, as if the idea had been lost before it could fully blossom. Or as if he changed his mind. Starsky did not know which of the two would be worse. He tried to believe Hutch wasn't deliberately yanking him back and forth, but he couldn't help feeling rejected once again. He's said it before, in so many words. 'Leave me alone. Let me live my own life.' But what is my life without you?

Repressing a sigh, Starsky went to work, and Hutch lay patiently under his ministering fingers, allowing Starsky to apply the ointment to his cheek. It was good to be able to touch him this way again; it filled up an empty place in Starsky's heart. If he had nothing else from this man who meant so much to him, he did possess this comfort.

********

The moments of closeness and revelation had felt so good. Hutch, growing drowsy, leaned against Starsky, feeling so much more at ease than he had with him in recent weeks. The fatigue eased him toward the escape of dreams. He felt Starsky's return to the couch, knew he was sitting there watching him; the warm presence still, waiting, yet full of comfort. Hutch was drifting, peaceful. Yet in that odd space between wakefulness and chimera, something caused him to reopen his eyes. They shared a look, the depth and reach of which Hutch could hardly fathom. His heart began to beat, as if from some mysterious secret, and in Starsky's deep-blue eyes he believed he saw reflected his own churning, yearning emotions. There came a spark -- of electricity? chemistry? -- that felt so familiar, so precious that Hutch wished desperately to cling to it. Was it attraction, reminiscence, rapport? The sensation was so strong, so swift taking over his heart and head... and then, in a burst, he felt an even stronger marvel, a truth so bright he felt he could reach out and touch it with his hand.

I once loved you, touched you, held you... it wasn't a dream, or my imagination! It was real.

The moment held, tight as suspense, for a drawn-out second. Starsky... Starsky! It did happen. Say something, tell me what to do. Don't you want it anymore? Your eyes, it looks like you don't know what to say, either. Is that it -- you're just as confused as me?

Then, like the sound of fine china breaking, it was gone. Starsky broke eye contact with him, and Hutch felt the tension ebb over into the pain that usually surrounded the two of them. For a moment, he nearly doubted the reality of what he had remembered. But he couldn't deny it anymore. He knew. But Starsky, he could almost swear, had pulled away.

I couldn't hang onto it... why? Why didn't you reach out and help me? It needs both of us, don't you know, to happen again...

Hutch felt like screaming or crying, but he did neither. All that escaped him was the softest of sighs. He drew into himself again, wrapping his private hell around him, finding sanctity in the loneliness. And the only touch that Starsky gave him was the gentleness of his fingers applying the medicine to his scraped cheek.

********

In the next few weeks, Hutch did a lot of thinking about that night. His memories' return had helped him understand the reality of how he'd been hurt, but though many doors had opened to him, beyond each of them lay confusing territory.

In many ways, it had been a good evening. He and Starsky had been able to talk more easily than they had in weeks, and Starsky hadn't yelled at him for jumping out of the car to follow the suspect, even though Hutch wasn't a cop anymore. It was only later that Hutch realized his behavior had been reckless, that he might have endangered innocent bystanders and Starsky because of what he'd done.

They were together, and yet things were not the same. What remained unspoken lay between them, more a barrier than a bridge. Hutch's realization had not served to draw them closer. He and Starsky had made love, but once upon a time, long ago and far away. The Starsky and Hutch of those brief moments no longer existed. Starsky had never mentioned the occurrence in all this time; it was obvious that he believed Hutch did not remember. Yet at the moment of Hutch's own revelation, he had thought Starsky could see the truth in his eyes. I thought, for a second, that he saw how I felt, and he was glad, or hopeful. But it faded away so quickly, I'm not sure anymore. Did he see that I remembered, and it made him uncomfortable? How did Starsky feel? Hutch knew there was no one else in Starsky's life. For a while, he'd thought his friend was dating Sally Hagan, but now he knew differently. Perhaps Starsky thought it could never happen again, and that it was useless to speak of it. Possibly, he was glad to pretend the act of love between them had never happened.

I've changed. So has he. Neither of us can go back to the way we used to be, not as friends and partners, so certainly not as lovers. He needs to hang on. And I need him to let go. Good moments are there sometimes, but it's so hard to find them. And the bad ones... they just keep chipping away at us, turning us into a parody of what we once were together. I'm afraid that it's gonna go on until there's nothing left.

Hutch didn't know how to explain his feelings to Starsky, and realized that even if he could find the words, Starsky probably would not understand. He sensed a loneliness in his friend that just sitting there with Hutch did nothing to assuage. His newborn knowledge was embarrassing. He wasn't even sure if he could actually engage in sex anymore, or if he'd ever want to. There were bigger questions in his life at this moment. I don't know who I am. You want the past, as you remember it, the partnership. Or maybe you want something that we started, but now can never finish. But I'll never be me -- the new me that is being forced into existence, unless you let me go a little. He began to believe he might have to risk breaking away before Starsky could accept the necessity of his move.

He threw himself into the work of rehabilitation, spending every day at the library, reading, trying to learn about the years he'd missed. He pursued physical therapy, weight lifting, working relentlessly to rebuild some of the strength he'd lost. It was hard work, leaving him tired at the end of the day. He had his therapists quiz him, test his reasoning powers, his memory; and little by little, he realized he was improving. He still used his notebook to make sure of his schedule, to recall what he'd done and when, and he kept trying to fit a little more into each day, expanding his abilities. He stressed math in his remedial classes, knowing he might have to understand finances when it came time to settle his parents' estate, and the concrete figures and definite patterns appealed to him, now as never before.

Yet with all the improvements, there were times he felt painfully inadequate, and he was always aware of the length of time he'd been out of touch.

Ted Fletcher understood. He and Hutch talked most afternoons at the Rehab Center. Ted told him that for months his parents had refused to let him arrange his own transportation for his therapy; that they hadn't wanted to leave him in the house alone. "They made me into a kid again, always making decisions for me," he complained. And even though Ted eventually came to understand their attitude, he had not learned to accept it.

"I know what you mean," Hutch told him with a sigh one afternoon. "It was like that for a little while with Starsky and me. But he had his job to go to, so he had to leave me on my own during the day, eventually. With him, it's more of an... emotional dependence. I get the feeling that he's comparing everything I say and do to the way I was before. And it makes me feel like I can't measure up."

Ted sighed. "What do you think you're going to do?"

"I don't know. Sometimes I think it might be best for both of us if I just leave town and never come back. He was doing fine before I was found -- all I'm doing now is holding him back. But I don't know if I can do that. I... I don't really have anyone else."

"What about your family, back in... Minnesota, is it?"

"They keep asking me to come for a visit. Phone calls. Letters. I'm supposed to meet with the lawyers about my parents' estate, too. But Starsky can't get away from work."

"Do you think you can handle the trip on your own?" The dark eyes focused intently on him.

Hutch gave it a few moments' thought. "It shouldn't be so hard. I can call for plane reservations, let my aunt know when I'll be arriving..."

"There, you see?" Ted was smiling at him.

"Have you ever done anything like this, since you recovered, I mean?" Hutch fully expected his friend to say yes.

Ted shook his head. "Don't know where I'd go." Then he looked away. "I guess maybe I'm not as desperate for my independence as you are. It's just... easier to put up with the problems than go out on my own."

Hutch understood, but Ted was younger than he was. He hadn't had the kind of autonomous life that Hutch had been living before his own accident. It was so important to Hutch that he be able some day to work, to be the kind of man Starsky would want as a friend again. Starsky was looking for what used to be -- or maybe what almost was -- and Hutch knew he couldn't provide that now. But if he tried very hard, perhaps they could make something new together. If only he'll understand when I try...